Spring barley expert guide
Spring barley may be springing back to its second highest level since 1997, with the AHDB Early Bird survey indicating that, due to poor winter barley yields, Great Britain is on course for an area 17% higher than 2016.
With more growers looking to plant spring barley again, whether for distilling or for brewing, it is important that they do everything they can to make a success of the crop, especially when quality is so crucial.
“The main challenge with growing spring barley is achieving the quality,” says John Murrie, Agrochemical Manager at Scotgrain Agriculture, “It’s a premium product, so there are a lot of quality parameters the crop needs to meet, like soundness of the grain and 98% or above germination.”
In spite of these potential challenges, there are also a number of advantages to growing spring barley in the UK. Simon Hobbs, Seed Manager – North Anglia at Agrii notes: “The crop operates as a good entry for OSR in England, and it’ll compete with spring germinating black-grass better than spring wheat, which is a key attribute for growers who have changed crop rotations because of it. Cost of production is also lower than for winter crops and potential returns greater with the correct management.”
The situation is similar in Scotland, too, as Mr Murrie explains: “In Scotland, spring barley fits in well with rotations and with the growing season – growers are able to sow it in March and April very successfully, and then harvest in August and September before the bad weather hits. It’s also a lower input crop compared with winter cereals, and is a good margin earner.”
Here are five tips to help growers ensure they make a success of spring barley:
- Attention to detail – With such high demands on the quality of the crop, it’s crucial that growers don’t overlook any detail. “You’ve got to make sure you have the correct soil, the correct pH, the correct fertiliser,” Mr Murrie says, “You can’t cut corners, because if the crop isn’t up to the right standard, it’s not going to work for distilling.”
- Prepare your seed bed – “Spring barley doesn’t like any compaction, so the seed bed needs to be good and even,” Mr Hobbs says, “The sooner you prepare the seed bed the better, depending on soil type, and don’t leave it too rough. In the spring, if black-grass is a threat, you don’t want to be cultivating in front of your drill – minimal soil disturbance when drilling is the best way to avoid encouraging a new flush of black-grass”.
- Watch the nitrogen – When it comes to spring barley, applying nitrogen is a different proposition to winter barley. “With winter barley you can generally apply as much nitrogen as you like within NVZ (Nitrate-vulnerable zone) regulations,” Mr Murrie points out, “With spring barley, you have to look at previous cropping to ensure you don’t apply too much. Obviously if you’re growing for distilling, it’s slightly different than if you’re growing for brewing, so in terms of how much nitrogen you’re applying, you need to look at the market you’re growing for.”
- Don’t skimp on the seed treatment – “You want an appropriate treatment that’s going to cover as many bases as possible in terms of disease,” Mr Murrie says, “If you spend the money putting the crop in the ground and then it doesn’t come through, you’ve wasted a lot of money. So a good-quality seed dressing like Raxil Star (prothioconazole, tebuconazole and fluopyram), which is at the top end of control for all the main seed-borne diseases, is crucial.”
- Timing is everything – “If you’re somewhere like Norfolk, which has light lands, you might want to drill pre-Christmas, because you need to get a better developed root system early ahead of any potential drought. Soil moisture on light land disappears quickly if you get a dry spring,” explains Mr Hobbs, “While if you’re on heavy land, you’re not going to be able to drill until the land dries out, which may be at the end of February or even the end of March – any later and yields will suffer. So it’s important on heavy soils to give yourself the best opportunity to drill early by utilising early autumn cultivations or by the use of an overwinter cover crop to improve seedbed conditions. Always adjust your seed rates according to drilling date and seed bed conditions as well, a typical range being 300 to 375 seeds per square metre.”
After winter barley, growers will have to become accustomed to a shorter growing season as well as the increased number of quality parameters. But by putting in place a robust growing strategy and planning ahead, growers have the opportunity to make the most of the crop and yield substantial returns.