November 2016

If you pardon the metaphor, spring barley is enjoying its day in the sun. The UK crop area has increased by about 35,000 hectares in the past two year to roughly 685,000 ha as more growers have come to regard it as the spring crop of choice. There are several reasons for this resurgence, such as grassweed control opportunities and the need to comply with the three-crop rule, but it is also easy to grow, the earliest to harvest of all spring-sown crops and has a reasonably competitive growth habit. As a grower, what’s there not to like?

For those still new to the crop, however, there are several significant points worth noting that make the crop distinctive, especially if you plan to grow it for malting.

The first is variety choice: brewers and maltsters prize consistency and they like to keep life as simple as possible. This is the reason why Propino has done so well for so long, but every dog has its day. If you have traditional spring barley land, typically free-draining sandy soils, Propino will probably have served you well, but the increase in crop area over the past few years has brought heavier land into the mix and here Propino fares less well.

A more versatile alternative, one that combines higher yields, typically 8-10% more in distributor trials depending on location, with stiffer straw and better brackling resistance is KWS Irina. Growers regularly tell us it is the easiest spring barley variety to combine partly because of its lower biomass, but also because of its strong brackling resistance means there are less ears close to the ground.

It is a variety that is less situation dependant due to its best-in-class brackling and lodging resistance. This has been demonstrated in official AHDB 2016 trials which found KWS Irina had the lowest lodging score of any recommended or provisionally recommended variety. Heavy land growers can take confidence in its standing ability, while remaining confident of meeting nitrogen limits due to the grain nitrogen dilution that comes with a higher yielding variety.

The second point to consider is market demand. As fears of a ‘hard Brexit’ continue to inflict a pounding on Sterling, the appeal of UK grains and oilseeds continue to increase. Sterling is down nearly 20% against the US dollar and about 16% against the Euro since the referendum which, while bad news for manufacturers of yeast-based sandwich spreads, is proving a boon for farmers with a big heap of grain to sell.

KWS Irina has built strong domestic demand having gained full brewing approval in 2015 and is the most widely used variety on the Continent meaning there is an established export market for it too. With end-users at home and abroad, this means it should be seen as a lower risk alternative than some other varieties for those near a port.

Seed rates play a large part in the success of any crop with their influence extending to every aspect of performance from final yield to lodging to screenings. Over two contrasting seasons (2015 and 2016) we have investigated the impact of seed rates on yield to ensure growers and their advisers are provided with advice necessary to maximise performance.

While not an exact science, we found that the optimum seed rate for KWS Irina across our demonstration sites in Cambridgeshire, Hampshire and Yorkshire was between 350 and 450 seeds/sq metre. Above 450 seeds/ sq M and yield suffers slightly.

The trials sites cover different soil types and while situations at the time of drilling will determine the actual seed rate used, the trials serve to highlight the flexibility within rates and how growers can, under certain circumstances, push rates higher than conventional practice suggests to increase yield without jeopardising other grain quality attributes such as screenings. Our experience suggests screenings at 2.5mm threshold are within the acceptable ranges at about 5%.