At 80,000ha, we remain on course for a record harvest of winter barley
We are just heading into the harvest of the largest area of winter barely we have ever had in this country. It's approaching 80,000ha this year. For an individual crop, this is a remarkable success story.
The reason for the big acreage this year are two-fold: once in a generation (we hope) low yields from spring barley in 2018, and excellent sowing conditions last autumn. Twenty years ago, winter barley was confined to specialist large-scale growers who were willing to absorb the crop's relatively high cost and low yield in order to spread the harvest workload.
It was the cereal breeding companies who eventually decided to sort the crop out, and they started to invest heavily in breeding programmes. Now the crop dominates the sector and is an all-round winning package which delivers:
* High consistent yields;
* High yields of quality straw;
* Early harvests with consequential lower drying costs;
* A safer working environment as more harvesting is carried out in the longer days of July rather than dusky days of September.
The early harvest also allows for the opportunity to revisit those livestock farmer friends you suddenly had last back-end asking you to grow catch crops for them.
They might actually give some of the slurry or dung they promised so wholeheartedly last Christmas week.
While the crop has many advantages, it is not without its problems.
The loss of key pesticides, in particular IPU, is beginning to bite. Grass weed control is becoming a bigger issue. Winter barley has few preventative and no curative options to grass weed proliferation.
The loss of Redigo Deter seed dressing for aphid control is also cited as a risk to production. This may or may not be the case. Certainly we can't control aphids with synthetic pyrethroids like we used to. They are just not effective anymore.
Whether we can continue to grow winter barley by planning our sowing dates better - depending on beneficial organisms to do the work for us for free (without us annihilating them with synthetic pyrethroids which is what we do now) - or just simply put on the goggles that eliminates yellow leaves from our field of vision, remains to be seen.
So with the 2019 crop heading for the docket book, what are our plans for 2020 harvest if continuous winter barley is not an attractive option?
Moving directly to winter wheat is not an attractive option either, given the risk of take-all.
Returning to spring barley may be an option for some, but if you are considering that, do yourself a big favour and put in an over-winter cover crop, or at least stubble cultivate to stimulate volunteers and problem weeds, trap soil-released nitrogen and trap carbon dioxide.
The best option for land out of winter barley is to follow on with a good break crop.
Winter barley is an ideal lead-in crop for oilseed rape, which is now a more consistent performer for the high protein feed that is in demand. It also produces good margins and spreads the workload. In addition, it results in excellent following wheat crops.
Another option is put in the cover crop and next spring sow in a crop of beans. Beans have all the advantages of oilseed rape, with an added coupled payment. The crop has got some negative feedback from the poor performance last year, but this year's crop looks excellent.
I'm beginning to think the real impediment to spring bean acreage is that combine drivers don't like wearing coats in the combine. It's the only reason I can think of for the reluctance to go for September harvesting.
Another good break crop option is oats. This can be a hard crop to sell some years, and the straw can be a hard sell too.
But we are beginning to realise the value of this crop to the land, to animal performance and to net margins. This crop has to be marketed better to growers and users alike.
The improvement in winter barley varieties is a real example of the ongoing potential of breeding programmes to address weaknesses and build resilience and profit into a crop type.
We can only hope that breeders can continue to focus this type of attention to other crops that are currently flagging. In particular, I am talking about crops like spring wheat, oats, rye and triticale which have the potential to eliminate maize from the country if they are given half a chance.
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