Spring barley benefits lift business efficiency
Spring crops can be a useful way of spreading the workload, risks and costs on arable farms. Edward Long finds out why one Norfolk farm is sold on the idea
INCLUDING spring barley in the cropping programme helps ease the autumn workload, spread the cereal harvest, cut weather-related risks and improve the cash-flow for a Norfolk farming business.
"These are all important considerations," says John Shepherd, farms manager for Maurice Mason, who has 2558ha (6386 acres) on nine farms within a 30-mile radius of Fincham Hall Farm near Kings Lynn.
"But another major reason why we grow spring barley is because wheat is not an economically viable option on some of our poorest land."
A third of the land is too light to reliably support winter cereals and much of it is cropped with sugar beet, with December/early January-drilled spring barley slotting in after the roots are cleared. "It would be madness on the sandy soil to put wheat in so late, as it would be at a vulnerable stage of growth at the time of the usual early summer drought."
The 273ha (674 acres) of spring barley being grown this year are sown to the varieties include Alexis, Chariot and Cooper, with Halcyon and Puffin for winter sowings.
Better than w. wheat
Spring barley returned to the rotation a few years ago. It was soon realised that a 4.9t/ha (2t/acre) yield made it a better economic proposition than wheat on land with a maximum grain potential of 6.2t/ha (2.5t/acre).
But it also provides several other worthwhile benefits, not least the better use of available labour and machinery.
The business is run with a team of five full-time staff supported by two semi-permanent casuals, and two students at harvest.
"We are not over-mechanised or over-staffed and the back-end is a particularly busy time for us. All the land is turned over with a single eight-furrow plough behind our John Deere 8400, and we have to drill over 2800 acres of cereals, 600 of rape and beans.
"Currently we are working our machinery and labour resources as efficiently as possible. We would be over-stretched if all the cereals were winter sown and would have difficulties meeting target dates for getting crops in."
Pressure to meet those calendar targets in a system with no spring cereals might mean uprating the tractor fleet, so increasing machinery and labour charges.
The benefit of having winter barley is also felt at harvest, as the combines can be kept at work from mid-July until mid-September.
With such a continuous harvest two combines are able to cope in most years. Weather risks are also spread.
Spring barley is cheaper to grow than a winter crop. And although lower yielding, its gross margin is not too far behind.
"Last harvest our feed wheat yielded between 3.5 and 4t/acre, the winter barleys averaged around 2.7t, with the spring crop doing 2.4t/acre. The gross margin for the wheat was £310/acre, with £220/acre for winter barley and £203/acre for the spring crop."
More than gross margins
But gross margins do not tell the whole story. With less money invested in seed, fertiliser and chemicals, spring barley not only costs less to grow, but the money is tied up for less time.
The Fincham Hall Farms crop is sold at harvest, as the 8000t capacity grain stores are needed for winter wheat. The spring barley leaves the farm after being dried and the cheque is banked soon afterwards.
So the cash-flow at both ends of the season is improved with a rapid return on capital invested.
"Spring malting barley fits in well and provides not just valuable grain and a good and quick return but it also contributes to the flexibility needed to manage our whole business more efficiently," Mr Shepherd says.n
Cashflow benefits are just one of several reasons why John Shepherd keeps a significant part of Fincham Hall Farm in spring crops.
• Machinery and labour.
• Cash flow.
• Comparable gross margin.
• Spread risk.
• Easier harvest.
Plus permanent pasture and set-aside.