Reasons to be cheerful with spring barley
We may be facing a big spring barley crop in 2020, but there are opportunities, a recent Hampshire malting barley conference heard, organised by grain merchant Robin Appel and Syngenta.
Barley supply and demand
Global barley production in 2019/20 is set to be the highest for 11 years, at around 156 million tonnes, said NFU chief combinable crops adviser, Jack Watts.
The UK could also be facing two years of high barley output, he added, with our 2019 harvest 26% up on 2018, and a big increase in spring barley plantings looking certain for 2020.
However, global barley demand has been increasing, and it is not an oversupplied market – though we will have to compete for end market opportunities, he stressed.
Traditionally, Mr Watts said the UK exports some spring malting barley to mainland Europe, but if it becomes uneconomic to sell our feed barley surplus into Europe due to Brexit, we will have to sell it to other parts of the world.
He said: “An interesting area is the Middle East, which has a dedicated amount of feed grain demand and is culturally committed to barley. We will have to compete with other countries to access this, but it might be one of our saviours.
“We need to focus on driving productivity of spring barley, but I don’t think we need to push it that far to see a change in our competitiveness.”
UK malting barley
Focusing on malting barley, Robin Appel’s trading director, Jonathan Arnold, agreed there were opportunities for UK spring barley.
Where growers continue planting winter wheat this winter it will ease the pressure on a potentially inflated UK spring barley harvest in 2020, he said, and it was important to remember the upsides of the UK malting barley sector.
“We have a vibrant brewing and distilling market and good overseas demand,” said Mr Arnold. “We are also a strategic supplier to Europe. We produced some fantastic quality barley in 2019 and they loved it. And we have a fantastic barley breeding programme in the UK.”
Even with Brexit, Mr Arnold believed the market will remain supply and demand driven. However, he said it will be important for experienced malting barley growers to differentiate themselves by not just growing a brewing variety, which could be oversupplied in Europe.
Instead, he urged growers to look at a dual-purpose brewing and distilling variety, given the success of the Scottish distilling sector, which has seen increased whisky exports and which has to lay down stocks for the long term.
Mr Arnold said: “If you are a good malting barley grower capable of producing low grain nitrogen malting barley, you need to be looking at distilling and looking at Laureate.”
Even growers in the south of England can access the Scottish distilling market, he noted. “More and more mainland English maltsters are producing malt for distilling. We have even had 2-3 cargoes of UK distilling barley malted in Europe and sold into Scotland. It shows you the demand in Scotland that is sucking up malt.”
Spring barley agronomy
Syngenta senior field technical manager, Iain Hamilton, said with the prospect of a lot of spring barley on the market in 2020, it will be vital to choose an end market – distilling, brewing, export malting, or feed – where you can realistically meet the required specification, and to use the correct agronomy to maximise productivity within that.
“Scotland cannot grow enough spring malting barley to meet its distilling requirements,” said Mr Hamilton, “which is why demand for the dual-purpose variety Laureate is so strong.
“However, if you are growing spring barley only to fill ground that couldn’t be planted with a winter crop, you may be better off growing for feed and out and out yield.”
Across all markets, Mr Hamilton highlighted several threats to output to be aware of this year:
With a temptation to plant farm-saved spring barley seed if supplies are tight, Mr Hamilton said it was important to be aware of the dangers of untreated seed. “Forgotten seed-borne diseases such as leaf stripe, which devastates green leaf area, and which is normally prevented by seed treatment, cannot be controlled with foliar fungicides,” he warned.
Drilling spring barley early, in an attempt to improve yield, can work but it also increases disease risk, said Mr Hamilton, and isn’t advisable on heavy land because the crop is easily stressed in waterlogged soil. Conversely, late drilling increases brackling risk (see below) as the crop tries to catch up, producing thinner and weaker stems.
With spring barley set to make an important contribution to farm incomes this season, protecting output with good disease management will be key, suggested Mr Hamilton.
He said: “Watch out for Ramularia. Chlorothalonil can only be used up until 20 May 2020, which is almost certain to be before the usual spring barley T2 timing. The active ingredients in Elatus Era – prothioconazole and solatenol – both have some activity against Ramularia, and testing in a high Ramularia pressure situation showed that adding the alternative multi-site, folpet, to it at GS39 gave a Ramularia reduction not far behind that from adding chlorothalonil. It also gave a similar yield increase and boosted margin by £18/ha.”
Spring barley can easily lose ears through brackling, said Mr Hamilton. Plant growth regulators help, but you don’t want to over-regulate the crop, so apply them at appropriate rates in a “split programme”, rather than in a single large dose, he suggested. A good fungicide programme has also been shown to reduce brackling, following improvements in overall stem health.