Why, despite its reputation as a “Cinderella cop”, spring barley deserves its place within growers’ rotations
Carefully tailoring variety choice and agronomy to individual sites and end-user requirements is vital if growers are to take full advantage of the increasing opportunities within the malting barley market.
That was a key message from a Farmacy Norfolk meeting last month, where speakers said rising demand for malting barley products and new plant breeding techniques would reinforce spring barley's place in many rotations over coming years.
"Spring barley has been regarded as a Cinderella crop in the past, but grown correctly with the right contracts in place, it has a really good place on farm," Farmacy agronomist Peter Riley told growers at the St George's Distillery near Thetford. "East Anglian malting barley is already a big success story, there is great technology coming from breeders."
Mark Ineson, from global malt supplier Muntons, said the firm had just announced £73 million of investment over the next decade to meet rising demand for malt products produced at its sites in Stowmarket and Bridlington.
He acknowledged there was uncertainty about 2019 trade given Brexit, but the underlying market remained strong, especially in East Anglia where demand exceeded supply.
End-user variety and quality requirements varied, though, so he encouraged growers to avoid “recreational” growing and to tailor variety choice and agronomy to buyer specifications. Equally, if spring barley was grown for black-grass control, that should remain the focus, with agronomy tailored accordingly, he said.
Mr Ineson noted that growers on lighter land were typically best placed to achieve the low grain nitrogen (<1.6%) required for distilling or brewing, while those on heavier land close to south coast ports could be better off targeting higher nitrogen (<1.85%) favoured by exporters.
"Consider your local markets, the specifications maltsters want and be clear what can be achieved on your farm and soil type," he told the audience.
Technological improvements in plant breeding are helping bring new varieties to market more quickly, offering improved agronomics and end-user compatibility, added RAGT's Cathy Hooper.
Double-haploid breeding, for example was used to produce spring barley variety RGT Planet, and took about two years off of conventional breeding techniques, she said.
Using genetic markers to identify desirable traits, such as disease resistance or yield, was another way technology is helping. She highlighted the firm's involvement with other companies and institutes in the Impromalt project, which is developing markers for quality traits to improve winter malting quality cultivars.
Work was also ongoing to develop low-GN (glycosidic nitrile) varieties for distilling with a low-GN version of RGT Planet about to enter its second year of official trials.
Given the short growing season for spring barley compared to winter crops, it's key to ensure crops put on biomass quickly, Farmacy's Bob Bulmer told growers.
That meant sowing barley into good seedbed conditions at a rate sufficient to deliver the plant population and ear number for optimum yield and quality.
“Barley, particularly two-rows, has a limited capacity to produce grains per ear compared to wheat. Establishing enough plants to produce a high number of ears is key to good yields," he added.
There was a strong correlation between ear/grain number and yield, he noted. A crop with 600 ears/sqm for example, typically yielded 6t/ha (assuming 21 grains/ear), whereas 800 ears/sqm would yield nearer 8t/ha.
Mr Bulmer added: "You need enough plants and tillers to generate these ears, which means sowing enough seed for the conditions and front-loading management so nothing limits crop growth.”
• Sow into good seedbeds, as spring barley is sensitive to poor soil conditions
• Consolidate well to improve seed/root-to-soil contact
• Build fertility early - apply nitrogen, phosphate and potash to seedbed or soon after drilling
• Use early tissue analysis to identify nutrient deficiencies (e.g. manganese)
• Growth regulators can benefit rooting and tillering
• Consider foliar magnesium from GS31 to flowering
• If irrigating in dry years, the best time is shortly after ear emergence to support grain fill and late biomass production
• Grain analysis provides a useful retrospective measure of deficiencies to correct next season