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Independent.ie

Wednesday 7 December 2016

A few bad days can have a huge affect on winter barley

Richard Hackett

Published 03/08/2016 | 02:30

Workers take a break during a wheat harvest on a farm operated by Kernel Holding SA, in Varva, Ukraine. Russia's wheat-export prices resumed declines last week amid bumper crops in Black Sea nations including Ukraine and Romania, according to the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies
Workers take a break during a wheat harvest on a farm operated by Kernel Holding SA, in Varva, Ukraine. Russia's wheat-export prices resumed declines last week amid bumper crops in Black Sea nations including Ukraine and Romania, according to the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies

As the winter barley harvest drags on, reality has dawned of the dependence we have on weather conditions during grain fill in order to maximise yields. As growers and agronomists, over the course of crop cycle all we can do is to provide as many viable grain sites as possible and produce as much green leaf area as possible.

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Green leaf produces assimilate which goes into filling these grain sites to complete the circle.

In order to maximise assimilate production, green leaves require bright, cool conditions to work at their best. Whether it was the high temperatures in May, or the low sunlight in June, the grain fill weather conditions encountered by the 2016 winter barley crop was the limiting factor in generating yield.

Winter barley in particular is very susceptible to weather during grain fill, as the grain fill 'season' is so short between the time that the crop goes from flowering to maturity.

So a few days can have a hugely negative effect, like we encountered in 2016, or hugely positive effect, as we saw in 2015.This effect is especially pronounced in the six-row varieties.

Growers

Like a sow with too many bonhams in a litter, six-row barley has a huge number of grain sites that need feeding. If conditions are good and there is plenty of 'milk', the overall effect is great as a big number of well-fed bonhams leads to a bumper crop.

However, if milk is limiting, the two or three too many bonhams have a negative effect on the whole litter, not just the extra ones, so every piglet ends up a runt and overall production is below what you would expect from available assimilate.

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So where does this leave winter barley as thoughts turn to the next cropping year?

A few short years ago, winter barley was confined to a few specialist growers with big acres looking to spread the harvest window or growers with well-established straw markets. A number of factors changed so that winter barley eclipsed winter wheat in terms of national acreage.

The question is where will acreage go next?

Many of the factors that have encouraged the increase in winter barley acreage are still in place.

Variety development of the crop has improved and available varieties are much better and more reliable than they were a few years ago.

Secondly, cross compliance regulations will continue to impact on crop choice. Thirdly, as regards alternatives, there is nothing jumping out as an alternative cereal crop: wheat continues to be too expensive to grow in second and continuous slots; spring barley yield is just too low to cover costs in many situations, and reseeding, unless a consistent viable outlet can be obtained for the grass, often has a much worse outcome than any cereal crop.

On the flip side, the biggest draw for the crop is harvest date. The early harvest date allows ideal timing for oilseed rape establishment, or to allow field remediation works such as drainage and hedgerow management to be carried out, or to allow time for application of organic manures.

More importantly however, longer days and generally better weather in July allows for long days of low moisture grain harvest, which always impacts well on the humour of the harvest crew, if not the bottom line.

In short, winter barley has a place in most crop rotations and should not be dismissed because of one poor year.

However, what has to be addressed are production costs. The crop has not the broad shoulders of yield consistency that winter wheat has to carry high cost production programmes. While most costs in cereal production are fixed in terms of machinery costs, land costs, base fertility, and seed costs, recent high yields have seen costs escalate way over what is necessary in other areas.

Fungicide programmes have gone way above the actual disease profile risk and the application of nutrient mixes, or magic potions as I like to call some of them, have reached a level of farce in some cases.

This trend is not unique to winter barley production. But if this or any crop has a future in Ireland, production costs will have to be slashed to the bare minimum. There is plenty of ''low hanging fruit' costs that can be looked at first.

Dr Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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