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Cover crop destruction advice for spring malting barley

Spring Barley
17.11.2021

Spring malting barley can be a hugely profitable option for spring cropping in the rotation, with modern varieties offering high yield potential and premiums available for malting.  As well as this, spring barley has fewer inputs than winter cereals making it both cost effective and less carbon intensive.  With the need to reduce our carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, this is top of mind for many.

Cover and catch cropping can help maintain soil biodiversity, soil nutrition, and reduce soil run-off in between the main arable crop rotation.  In addition, they can provide habitats for beneficial insects and increase carbon sequestration over bare ground or stubble.  In many cases cover crops before a spring barley crop in the rotation can be a viable option for growers.

Carbon sequestration is becoming a key area for many farms and is particularly important for malting barley growers as they form part of the food chain which may have its own targets to consider in the brewing and distilling sectors.  Cover crops can play a huge role in this area and depending on the mix, may also help with reducing nitrogen inputs which in turn can lead to a reduction in carbon footprint. Adjustments may need to be made to achieve the right specification for malting.

Kathryn Hamlen, Seeds Technical Lead, Malting Barley

For those that have opted for a cover crop, common practice is to spray off in late January/early February to allow enough time before drilling the new crop. Glyphosate often plays a key role in this part of cover crop management, however with the potential loss of glyphosate in the future, alternative methods, such as grazing, mechanical and herbicidal destruction of the cover crop prior to spring crops are the main options. 

Between autumn 2021 and harvest 2022, Syngenta are conducting a series of trials in different cover crop mixes and methods of destruction prior to establishing a crop of spring malting barley. 

The project will be looking into a raft of sustainability measures both above and below the ground to measure the effect of different cover crops:

  • monitoring soil nutrient changes, organic carbon stock and Carbon:Nitrogen ratio
  • microbial biomass in the soil
  • nutrient capture and organic matter content
  • cover crop biomass and following crop establishment
  • pest and beneficial insect counts
  • crop yield and quality to ensure malting specifications are met

The project aims to measure some of the benefits of using a cover crop as well as investigating some of the practicalities of establishing a crop after it.  We are looking in different regions with different climatic pressures to see how this varies, with the goal of supporting growers across the UK who are either already growing cover crops within their rotations or interested in incorporating it in the future.