Farm Ireland

Sunday 21 January 2018

Expansion of winter barley has changed harvest dynamics

Ted O'Leary, Conna, Co. Cork is pictured inspecting a crop of Cassia Leibniz winter barley which was sown & dressed with Redigo Deter on September 28th last year. He hopes to harvest on July 20th back twelve days on last year due to a dry April & a cold May. Photo: O'Gorman Photography.
Ted O'Leary, Conna, Co. Cork is pictured inspecting a crop of Cassia Leibniz winter barley which was sown & dressed with Redigo Deter on September 28th last year. He hopes to harvest on July 20th back twelve days on last year due to a dry April & a cold May. Photo: O'Gorman Photography.

Richard Hackett

The combines are finally rolling and the fruits of the last year's investments are finally about to be brought to bear. There has been a huge sea-change in the harvest schedule in the last few years, and this year's harvest will be particularly skewed.

This is as a result of the major swing towards winter barley and away from winter wheat and spring barley production. Traditionally, winter barley was used as a preamble to the main harvest, to clean down the combines more than anything else.

Winter barley straw was also a valuable commodity and, after the short harvest, time could be spent gathering this valuable commodity to best effect.

Indeed the economics of winter barley was often dependent on strong straw sales to look good on paper.

Now, however, the winter barley harvest is forming a significant part of the overall harvest and front loads a lot of pressure onto the harvesting system.

This is all to the good. The crops start coming in during the longer days of late July, providing a longer harvesting window and, hopefully, drier conditions.

This provides a significantly longer timeframe before autumn cultivation to allow for remediation works to be carried out where necessary, such as drainage, liming and organic manure application.

As an aside, the potato industry could learn a lot about the benefits of early harvesting, if only the industry could become more proactive towards that end.

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But don't underestimate the change in work practice necessary to carry out a big proportion of the harvest so early in the season.

Straw sales in particular will come under pressure with this change and may well be the Achilles heel of the increased winter barley acreage this year.

There is a big carry-over of straw from last year, fodder levels are good as a result of good weather for silage and hay making, and there will be an unusual bubble of straw early in the season that could easily distort the market.

I'm never a fan of chopping straw as a standard management practice. Straw is, over time, a valuable commodity with many potential uses and the argument put forward for recycling of nutrients is slightly perplexing. If the recycling of nutrients is so important, why not leave the grain in the field while you're at it?

However, there are instances when chopping straw may be of benefit and if straw sales are extremely sluggish over the next few weeks, just because a few years ago barley straw was very valuable and sought after is no reason to push unwanted product onto a soft market.

Tough decisions might have to be made and better to make the decision early at cutting time rather than have to deal with unwanted swathes or worse, unwanted bales, later on. Winter wheat straw could be a different proposition.

The winter wheat straw market is underpinned by the demand for mushroom compost production.


The dramatic reduction in winter wheat acreage this year will have a bearing on availability of straw for that market.

Barley cannot be substituted for wheat straw and while there are plenty of straw reeks still evident from last year's harvest, which will no doubt dampen enthusiasm for new crop straw, the quality of this is deteriorating and it might be a long time before the 2016 winter wheat straw comes available.

But like a lot of outlets, it shouldn't be the growers role to shoulder the burden of risk that the market will improve later in the year. Market your straw carefully and if market sentiment is not good, chop it and move on.

Only chop straw on land with a secure tenure, don't leave any potential benefit for someone else to get the benefit from.

The new kid in town, field beans have taken on a particularly luxuriant complexion in the warm broken weather of the last few weeks.

One little critter that has taken a particular shine to these healthy crops is the black bean aphid.

It can be frightening to see how they colonise an individual plant, to the point that the plant nearly falls over with the weight of aphids on it. The cold weather in spring and early summer has delayed the development of natural predators of aphids so they have a free run of it at the moment.

The rule of thumb of 5pc of plants infected before taking action is not a particularly useful guide at field level. There are many things to consider before action is warranted.

Crops are still flowering so a selective aphicide such as Pirimicarb is necessary to reduce the effect on the unsung heroes of the field, bees. Spraying late in the evening will also reduce impact.

One aspect that must be considered is the physical damage to the crop that will undoubtedly occur from spraying, particularly as crops are very brittle from the rapid growth experienced in the last few weeks.

Bear in mind that aphid populations can often suddenly collapse by themselves with a change in the weather, competition among themselves for nutrients or natural predation. In short, monitor carefully for a while before deciding on action, or inaction, as the case may be.

Dr Richard Hackett is a Dublin based agronomist and member of the ACA


Indo Farming