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Cereal variety choices must strike the right balance between market suitability and business risk, says Jock Willmott. Consistency should drive cereal variety decisions

Yield and quality information from this harvest is yet to be finalised – but initial results and farmer feedback suggest consistent performance was scarce.

Some harvest results have been hard to explain – making picking the right variety mix a difficult task. But it is clear that the 2021 growing season exposed the vulnerability of varieties to diseases – even those given high resistance ratings.

It’s a fluid situation. The logistics of getting seed to farms after a delayed harvest must be weighed up against protecting the farm business from unnecessary risk by growing susceptible or inconsistent varieties.

For those intending to home-save more seed this year, quality is slightly down and seed-borne disease levels are generally high. Growers may need to dress it hard, so start with a big pile. A good fusarium active seed dressing is likely to be required.

Poor performance

When it comes to variety selection, there have been some very disappointing results. Some varieties have performed poorly – either due to susceptibility to disease or stress-related issues caused by weather extremes.

After a very cold and dry April, the situation changed very rapidly from being comfortable going into harvest around May time to seeing a septoria explosion from mid-June.

We are still to fully understand the repercussions, but we hope growers don’t see the same issues again. With potentially fewer high resistance varieties to choose from, we have to assume that septoria pressure will be at least moderate next year.

Yellow rust susceptibility is narrowing the Group 1 and hard Group 4 winter wheat options while septoria concerns are limiting the soft wheat choices.

Newer varieties

It’s a shame that some of the newer material is not performing as expected. These varieties were marketed as able to take some of the pressure off and reduce risk.

This means farmers should grow the varieties that they feel comfortable with – even if that means trading a slight yield penalty or lower disease resistance for consistency.

With rust, it’s true that we have the chemistry to deal with it. But if we can’t spray it on time, it becomes a much bigger problem.

Crusoe is my pick of the Group 1s, providing it is grown as a first wheat and its brown rust risk is monitored.  Group 2 Extase has shown some yield variability in 2021, so it should be grown only as a first wheat with an October drilling date until more is known.

The Group 3 sector is tricky as all choices have some negatives. This group has been badly affected by susceptibility to septoria, due to the predominance of Cougar parentage. If you are growing one of these varieties, then all other factors must be in line. 

Under pressure

Remember, a thick crop drilled early is likely to come under a great deal of septoria pressure next spring. This advice also applies to the soft Group 4s Skyscraper, Spotlight and possibly Saki for the same reason.

In my view, some of the established hard Group 4s are preferable to their newer counterparts. Varieties such as Graham and Gleam have been more reliable and consistent than recent introductions, even if they have lost the edge on disease resistance. 

Seed availability will dictate much of what is grown in the 2021/22 season, but previous experience of growing a variety can be invaluable. If you’ve grown something that fared particularly badly this year, there’s still time to change your line-up for next year.

Jock Willmott is an independent agronomist with Ceres Rural. For details, visit www.ceresrural.co.uk.