Hold back from returning to growing winter cereals if you are working to get on top of black-grass populations, experts warn. Heather Briggs writes.
The combination of poor results from this year’s spring cereal crops and the mild autumn so far may make growers wonder if it might be better to continue to drill winter crops, rather than wait for spring, says ProCam head of crop production Mike Thornton.
“The long, cold winter last year, followed by a change to hot, dry weather made for real challenges for cereals which were planted late,” says Mr Thornton.
“As a result, a number of growers had disappointing results so they may be tempted to go back to winter cropping at this stage.”
Some Scottish growers may also be thinking along the same lines, he says.
“In Scotland in 2017, the late spring barley harvest had a knock-on effect of reducing the area of winter oilseed rape planted for 2018. This has limited the opportunity for first wheats. Good ground conditions and an earlier potato harvest could lead to the wheat area returning to its previous level.
“Also, coming out of the long warm summer, the harvest was early, so those who are not on contract for spring malting barley may decide to move back to winter crops.”
As a result, malting barley acreage may be lower next year.
However, he emphasises, for those who have a black-grass problem, strategies to get on top of the weed need to last five or six years.
“If you think in terms of the weed seed bank and seed return, going back to winter cropping you may well be throwing away all the good work you have done so far.”
Looking ahead to the coming year, Mr Thornton foresees few changes in varietal choice with a three-horse race between RGT Planet, Laureate and Propino as the most popular malting varieties.
“RGT Planet has a high yield, a good specific weight and disease resistance, so it is likely to remain top.”
There is increased interest in Laureate as, in many cases, it out-yielded Concerto by 1t/ha but Planet still has the edge on yield and specific weight, he says.
Propino has a lower yield, but is still good quality, and its popularity is likely to continue for a while, he adds.
“There are some other varieties on the AHDB Recommended List which are currently being tested for quality and also some good candidates, but until an incumbent variety goes wrong, it is difficult for a new one to get a foot in.”
For example, Diablo and Tomahawk are improvements on current varieties in terms of yield and disease resistance. Tests are continuing to see how they malt.
“Barley varieties stay around for longer than they do for winter wheat, and when considering changing, it is important to remember that the yield figures in the AHDB Recommended List should be considered as ‘potential’ as they are grown under ideal conditions.”
Nevertheless, he will be interested to look at this year’s results when they are published.
Looking back at the growing season in 2018, he reflects that performance was more to do with when and how crops went in than variety, and some crops did better than expected.
“In March there was some moisture in the ground, so those that went in early were able to get started, and although it dried up, they were able to exploit the high UV levels and photosynthesise.”
It was a short growing season, but there were some advantages.
“The dry conditions resulted in low uptake of nitrogen (N), which is better for malting, and also there was low incidence of fungal diseases such as net blotch and rhynchosporium, so samples sent to brewers were bold.”
Given the challenging conditions of 2018, some of the malting barleys still performed well, reports Agrii head of crop marketing Paul Taylor.
According to Glencore figures, 60 per cent of Planet made full specification while Propino lagged behind with 40 per cent.
“It appeared that Planet caught up better despite being late drilled, while Propino has been bred to cope with a more northerly climate and suffered more with the heat and drought,” says Mr Taylor.
The Explorer contract for Budweiser made 65 per cent of specification; which was encouraging given that it is grown on heavy land and was drilled late. This could be because the variety quickly developed a good root system which was able to scavenge for moisture.
“Kickstarting the root system when the environment is not perfect is often a good idea; seed treatments to enhance fertiliser utilisation can be helpful as they are ‘always on and always active’ when applied at that stage.”
Moving on to discuss the most popular varieties Mr Taylor notes that Propino is suffering from a yield lag compared with Laureate and Planet, but growers are starting to receive a premium for it.
“As increasing numbers of growers opt for Planet, the maltsters are noting a lack of diversity. To make this up, a differential is being offered in the contracts.”
He notes that according to AHDB figures, Laureate is a little more fragile than the others but it has the potential for shipping, but this of course depends on the deal the Government strikes on leaving the EU.
Many growers appear to be returning to winter cropping after disappointment with the results from this year, he adds, noting increases in Agrii’s winter wheat order book.
“Oats did not like the heat, there was loss of germination for spring beans, and there is concern about harvesting after the loss of the desiccant diquat.
“However, the drought year has brought high prices for the crops that did make it.
“Next year we expect conditions to be more normal, and for the exportable trend of malting barley to continue to rise.”
“Spring barley will continue to be an attractive option for growers in 2019. Its competitive nature and prolific early growth is a key part of cultural control programmes enabling growers to help get on top of black-grass,” says Elsoms agricultural division head, Adrian Hayler.
Following Elsoms’ successful launch of a new joint venture with German barley breeder Ackermann last year, Elsoms Ackermann Barley now has two varieties, Chanson and Sangria, proving popular with both growers and brewers.
Chanson, fully recommended by the AHDB, has performed well in the UK this year across a wide range of situations and has exciting brewing potential in a range of markets as a result of its Null Lox character that can significantly improve foam stability and shelf life of beer. Early maturing, it combines high yields with robust all-around disease resistance. Both Gleadell and Frontier are currently involved in developing the variety in the UK and are working with end users to generate demand. There will be good seed availability for Chanson next year.
Elsoms is also working with Agrii and Glencore to develop Sangria, a high free amino nitrogen (FAN) type with the potential to provide a significant uplift in yield when compared with Explorer (the existing variety currently used in this market).
“Sangria is a promising new variety displaying good resistance to lodging and has exciting malting potential. Initial results on farm and with end users have been very promising, confirmed Mr Hayler.
Secure seed supplies
Many popular spring seed varieties could be in tight supply this season so growers should place orders early to avoid disappointment, says agronomy firm Hutchinsons.
According to the company’s seeds manager David Bouch, the volume of spring barley seed will be down on previous years due to lower yields and the impact of hot weather on quality.
“Spring barley is sometimes prone to dormancy issues anyway, but if that’s coupled with a low germination year caused by high temperatures affecting the germ inside the seed, it will compound the problems for seed availability.”
Additionally, reports suggest some seed crops have struggled to meet the grade due to high screenings, he notes.
“There’s still some uncertainty as to exactly how much will be available from suppliers, but if you have a requirement for spring seed and know what you want, then it is worth placing orders sooner rather than later.
“Historically many growers wait until January before ordering seed for sowing in February or March, but a lot of preferred varieties could be in short supply or sold out by then.”