'Winter barley has many advantages but yield consistency isn't one of them'

Richard Hackett

We are still in the middle of the main grain harvest, and probably not the best time to reflect on the 2019 crop just yet.

 However, here in north Dublin, the post mortems have already started, especially in relation to the winter barley harvest just completed.       My last piece made a comment that winter barley had become a consistent performer.  However, that was before the harvest and if we have learnt anything from the 2019 harvest thus far, is that while winter barley many have many advantages, consistency is not one of them.  

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Many growers ended up with mediocre yields in general, combined with some very disappointing fields and even blocks of fields.

These crops appeared to have good potential before the harvest - at the very last they didn't look to have the very poor yield potential they ended up with.

Growers and advisors alike were not just disappointed, but annoyed and perplexed with themselves to the point of questioning their own ability to grow crops such was the inconsistency of results.

And the uncertainty around grain price and the pressure to drive the price of straw down isn't helping the growers' mood.

I have written in this column before about the crucial importance of good weather during the grain fill period.

Good weather for grain fill needs to be bright (enough sunlight), yet cool enough that the plant can work away all day and not shut down in very warm weather.

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The grain fill period for winter barley is generally in the last days of May and the first days of June. The crop has a very short grain fill period, so very small changes over a small number of days in the weather can have profound effects on the outcome.

Met.ie has some fascinating information on monthly weather data at weather stations.

If we take weather for Dublin Airport, rainfall for May was less than average and above average in June.

Soil temperature at 10cm was bang on average at 11.1C for May and at 13.4C for June as 1C less than average.

Solar radiation was a good bit lower in May and June than the average.

So we had average rainfall, less sunshine and less soil temperature. Early June in particular was cold, 3-4C below the 1981-2010 average. My own rain gauge measured practically no rain for three weeks in May but 64 mm fell between the last week of May and first week in June.

The overall weather trends during the grain fill period were not good for grain filling, so we were never going to have barnstormers.

But that doesn't explain the really poor performance of individual fields.

Much has been made of the threat of BYDV in winter barley production.

This year we had Redigo Deter, which was widely used. There was plenty of opportunity to spray for aphids over the winter, an opportunity which was taken by many growers.

We also had huge beneficial organism activity throughout the autumn, winter into the spring.

This was noticeable by the level threads from immature spiders apparent in fields in bright mornings, and the amount of ladybird activity in early spring.

Aphid activity therefore was well controlled this year.

Yes, there was BYDV apparent in crops in classic stunted circles about 30-40cm in diameter.

But every yellow leaf is not due to BYDV, and to dismiss every poor yield as due to BYDV is perhaps missing the real story.


Individual yellow leaves on a plant, sometimes completely yellow leaves in otherwise healthy crops and plants is not classic BYDV as we know it. All in all, I'm not sure that BYDV is the cause of the problem either this year.

One thing that was very apparent was the collapse of one variety from the recommended list. It's the first time I have observed a recommended list variety perform so poorly relative to the other varieties.

Where crops did perform well and sometimes very well, were in cases where there is a very good rotation, but more importantly, where judicious use of organic manure have been made - and the soil P and, more importantly, soil K index is very high.

High lime status is also crucial. Many iffy soil pHs were severely punished and I think this provides a clue to our problems this year.

We tend to slot winter barley into very high risk slots for take-all in the rotation.

The traditional view is that take-all doesn't affect winter barley. This is not true. Generally winter barley can overcome the effects of take-all.

But perhaps with the breed improvements that are going on, we are breeding varieties that put more energy into the top of the plant than into the roots of the plant

Perhaps this is making them more susceptible to root diseases like take-all, more susceptible to lower lime status, requiring easier pathways of nutrient uptake to maximise grain fill.

Winter barley has many benefits. It delivers an early harvest during long days that are safer to operate in and produces drier grain to harvest. It has a slot in a good rotation, an important slot.

But it has not the broad shoulders to carry the full production of a farm.

Reduce this risk: build up lime levels, use organic manures, bring in break crops, and target plenty of first wheats.

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