How to grow a successful spring barley crop
Spring barley growers have control over all the elements of growing spring barley, all but price and weather, so focus on what you can influence inside the field gate.
The level of rainfall recorded at Athenry weather station (courtesy of met eireann) between Dec 2017 and Feb 2018 stands at >400mm, as a result land still remains unfit to cultivate and spring barley planting has to be put on hold until weather conditions improve.
Soil temperatures are also 1.5-2.5 degrees below normal for this time of year. It is important to have patience with soil conditions as spring barley will not perform in a poor/damaged seedbed. However conditions can change very rapidly with a few days drying so it is important to have all your planning and preparations done and be ready to go when the opportunity arises.
It is important to have soil analysis carried out at least once every five years. A basic soil result will give you the fertility status for pH/Lime requirement and the Macro elements phosphorous and potassium.
It is essential to establish the nutrient status of the field or farm to feed the crop correctly.
Applying lime and correcting soil pH to 6.5 is an essential and often forgotten duty when establishing a spring barley crop. Barley is highly sensitive to acidity.
Ground limestone should be spread on ploughed ground and tilled in. Granular lime due to its high cost and both lack of potency and endurance should be avoided especially on heavier clay soils that may have a higher lime requirement. Lime gives by far the best return on investment above all other inputs at €20-25/tonne.
Aim to have all soils at P & K index 3 – This is the optimum level for a soil to maximise crop performance. With fertiliser prices increasing for 2018, this is going to be the single biggest input cost at €110-130/acre. This is calculated on P & K index 3 soils with compound NPK fertiliser costs of €365-380/tonne and CAN fertiliser costs of €265-280. These costs will increase further on lower fertility soils. On P & K index 1 & 2 soils the P & K should be drilled with the seed.
Cultivation & Sowing
While being mindful of soil conditions, March is the ideal month to sow spring barley with yield potential declining after mid-April. A fine firm seedbed is ideal, with as little cultivations as possible to avoid damage to soil structure and soil compaction. Seeds are best sown at a depth of 3-5cm and if possible rolled afterwards to give good contact with the soil.
Seed Variety & Rates
When picking a variety it is important to consider what performed well in previous seasons and also to refer to the Department of Agriculture Recommended List to compare the agronomic and quality characteristics. One new variety that is showing great potential is Gangway but seed supply is limited. Check variety availability with your local merchant. Certified blue label seed is retailing at €500-550/t.
In order to grow a high yielding barley crop, 300-325 plants/M₂ are required to produce 1000 heads/M₂, with an establishment rate of 85-90pc, 350-380 seeds/M₂ must be planted. This translates into 160-190kg/Ha or 10-12st/ac depending on the 1,000 grain wt. (TGW) of the seed been sown.
High plant counts are vital as there is a direct correlation between grain numbers and yield in barley and unlike wheat and oats it cannot compensate for lower plant and tiller numbers.
Following on from correct sowing and good plant establishment, promoting plant tillering with timely nitrogen applications, early weed intervention and prompt fungicide treatments (if disease is present) is key.
Markets & Returns
With regard to margins, they are projected to be very fine. At proposed future barley price of €140/t next harvest, growing and harvesting a 3t/acre barley crop will yield a gross margin of €80/acre (incl. straw) according to Teagasc Crops Costs & Returns 2018.
With world wheat closing stocks 2017 increasing from 2016, it does not augur well for future grain prices. However, world weather and policy events especially when they occur in the big grain producers and exporters like Russia, Ukraine, US and South America can very quickly cause markets to move, somewhat similar to what we seen in the bread aisles of Irish supermarkets while ‘the beast from the east’ came to visit.
This really shows how volatile and fickle the food market can be., Although there are large global cereal inventories currently, if a natural disaster (which is not too uncommon) such as flooding, drought, extreme prolonged frost were to happen in a one of the afore mentioned parts of the world then it’s a game changer with regard to price.
I’m not going to wish bad fortune on anyone but I am going to wish all the cereal growers in the west the best for 2018 and may they get the weather conditions they so badly needed for the past two seasons.
John Galvin, Beef & Tillage Adviser, Mellows Centre, Athenry
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