Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Ron Granger of Limagrain outlines six ways to get the best from spring barley this season. 6 steps to spring barley success

Ron Granger of Limagrain outlines six ways to get the best from spring barley this season.

1) Understand the market

Market requirements influence many agronomic decisions, particularly nitrogen strategy, so it is essential growers are clear about the criteria that must be met.

Depending on locality and opportunities for selling to different end users or export markets, the barley crop you grow – and the agronomic inputs required – will be determined by the sector you target.

This is particularly true for growers who must hit a certain grain nitrogen percentage to achieve a premium. Distilling requires 1.65% nitrogen or lower, brewing 1.65-1.85%, and grain distilling at 1.85%+. Grain nitrogen is not a concern for animal feed.

2) Choose the right variety

Many variety choices are also determined by the end market or contract chosen.

But for those still to decide what to grow, consider a dual use variety, such as LG Diablo. It has good yield performance, with several end market opportunities.

Newer recommended varieties certainly offer higher yield potential, and if contracts are offered, then they are certainly worth considering. Dual use varieties offer growers flexibility for the distilling, brewing and feed market sectors.

3) Wait for good conditions

Earlier drilling improves yield potential. But this is often only possible on lighter, free-draining land. It can significantly increase disease risk, so consider more disease resistant varieties for this situation.

Patience is required for the right window of opportunity, when both weather and soil conditions allow good seedbed creation.

Rising soil and air temperatures will help ensure rapid emergence and establishment, with continued plant growth. We saw the value of earlier drilling in spring 2022, with most growers drilling earlier than usual.

Along with upfront nutrition before the drought hit, early drilling was certainly one reason why growers achieved higher yields than originally anticipated.

4) Optimise seed rate

Half of all growers typically sow spring barley at 300-350 seeds/m², with most targeting a yield of 8t/ha. This is about right when drilling into good conditions, but seed rates must be tailored to individual situations.

Comparing performance over various seasons and regions suggests the optimum seed rate is 350 seeds/m² when a vigorous, higher tillering variety such as LG Diablo is drilled into ideal conditions in mid-March.

This should be adjusted up or down depending on weather, seedbed, soil moisture, drilling date, and site experience. Late-sown crops inevitably produce fewer tillers and therefore fewer ears, which must be compensated for by increasing seed rate.

A lower rate of 300-325 seeds/m² could suffice if drilling into an “onion bed” in March. But it may be appropriate to push rates to 400- 450 seeds/m² achieve target ear numbers and a competitive crop in a blackgrass situation when forced to drill into April.

5) Maintain tiller numbers

Once crops are established, the best way to achieve high spring barley yield potential is to ensure high final ear counts. The AHDB barley growth guide suggests final target ear population should be around 775 ears/m².

In 2019, higher yield potential was achieved from higher final ear counts, approaching 800/m² by harvest. An 8-9 t/ha crop needs around 800 ears/m², which at a 350 seeds/m² rate, equates to around 2.5-3 tillers per plant at harvest.

But experience shows optimal tiller and ear counts may be underachieved in many situations, meaning crops fall short of achieving their full yield potential. The biggest issue is often the weather.

Traditionally, spring barley was often seen as a lower input crop, with growers reluctant to increase nitrogen rates in fear of exceeding maltsters’ grain nitrogen limits. But trials over many seasons indicate that higher nitrogen rates can be beneficial.

In the trials, a standard seedbed application of 120kg N/ha was compared to a split application of 150kg N/ha, with the additional 30kg at late tillering. This resulted in a yield benefit of 0.4-0.5t/ha over a single dose, with little or no impact on grain nitrogen.

6) Optimise other nutrients

Optimising macronutrients, such as phosphate, potash, magnesium and sulphur, is beneficial to tiller retention and yield.

These should be applied in the seedbed or soon after drilling to promote strong rooting and early plant growth. Tissue analysis of a young growing crop can identify any shortfalls in nutrition before visible symptoms appear. It is a relatively inexpensive way of targeting a high yielding crop.

Applied at the stem extension phase into flowering, additional micronutrients such as manganese, zinc, copper, iron, and boron, are also useful. Consider early growth regulator applications on crops to promote rooting and strong uniform tillering.

At least two fungicides are recommended to maintain tiller number and healthy plants, including the awns and maximum grain development. Typically, the first application is at GS 25-31, with the second targeted between GS 39-55.