Ultra early spring barley
makes economic sense
By Edward Long
ONE Norfolk grower is so encouraged by early November-drilled spring barley that the crop is going in as a second cereal this autumn, rather than after sugar beet.
Late autumn-drilled spring malting barley is cheaper to grow than a winter crop, more reliable than spring-sown spring barley and beats both on gross margin, says north-Norfolk grower Ian Roy.
"I have dropped winter barley in favour of late autumn drilled spring barley as it makes more economic sense, and spreads the workload at both ends of the season," says Mr Roy who farms 240ha (600 acres) of chalky loam at Cradle Hall Farm, Burnham Market.
"In the first year I drilled Optic in December and was pleased with 6.2t/ha. Last year I intended to drill in November, but the weather delayed us until December and it still averaged 6.5t/ha. This was about the same as winter barley and a lot better than the sub-6t/ha we used to get from a malting type sown in March."
This year he has 35ha of Nov-drilled Optic and is hoping for an even better yield.
Spring barley used to follow sugar beet, but yields were variable and malting quality indifferent. Recently it was decided to maximise first wheat, so wheat rather than spring barley now follows late harvested beet, and autumn drilled spring barley follows wheat.
Drilling cannot start until soil temperatures drop, as it is important not to establish lush, frost-prone growth. At least 10% less seed is needed than for winter barley, and no autumn herbicide or fungicide is applied.
Mildew was an initial concern, but being only 1.5 miles from the coast cold Arctic winds keep the fungus in check.
Drilling early into good conditions allows the crop to develop a big root system before winter, getting it off to a flying start in early spring, so cheaper fungicide programmes can be used.
Last spring 150kg/ha (120units/acre) of nitrogen was applied. But as grain nitrogen was 1.7-1.82%, slightly more may be used this year.
"Last years malting premium was £17/t, considerably more than the £7-8 for winter barley, and was moved within a week. When I had winter barley no-one was in any hurry to take it.
"Last years spring crop had a gross output of £725/ha which after £161 of variable costs gave a gross margin of £564/ha.
"I estimate the gross output from winter barley would have been £689, so with variable costs of £192 the gross margin would have been £497/ha. So I cannot afford to grow winter barley and am not keen to drill the spring crop at the conventional time," Mr Roy concludes. *
Drilling spring barley extra early suits Norfolk grower Ian Roy, lifting yield, quality and margin. This Optic was drilled on Nov 17, but drier weather would have seen it in as early as Nov 10.
No hard winter means drilling with caution
Early-drilled spring barley can boost profits, but growers must be cautious, as there has not been a hard winter for years, warns independent agronomist Richard Palmer of Farm Vision, whose business partner Shane Smith looks after the Cradle Hall crop.
Growers also need to be aware of BYDV in a mild autumn, and wheat bulb fly. With few insecticide spray options, it is worth considering a seed dressing if the crop follows roots, he says.
Optic is particularly suited to late autumn drilling, adds Simon Phillips of breeder New Farm Crops. "But a lot depends on the season. Waiting for good seedbed conditions is better than drilling on calendar date. It is vital not to put seed into warm soil as the crop must not race away and become lush before Christmas."
Also be prepared to split N top-dressing with 50% at the one-to-two leaf stage, the rest two weeks later, he adds.
AUTUMN-SOWN S BARLEY
• Higher yield than w barley or spring-sown s barley.
• More reliable malting sample and bigger premium.
• Better rooting system.
• Less risk from early summer drought.
• Ready for combine week sooner.
• Cheaper to grow than winter barley.
• Bigger gross margin.