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Making the move from winter to spring cropping

Spring Barley
Spring barley establishment

As thoughts turn to spring cropping on farm, November is a good month to identify the best time to switch from a winter cereal crop to a spring cereal crop.

Winter barley has a smaller drilling window than winter wheat, and Syngenta trials have shown that both 2-row winter barley and 6-row hybrid barley see a decline in yield around November.  However, this is clearly dependant on seedbed, soil moisture, weather conditions and establishment.

A number of factors will affect crop establishment:

  • Seedbed quality: no matter what crop you are growing a poor seedbed will make it difficult to achieve a good financial return
  • Soil moisture: drilling into moisture is essential, however excessive rainfall can severely impact drilling conditions
  • Soil temperature: as soils begin to cool plant emergence can slow
  • Seed rate: when conditions are optimum, seed rate for hybrid barley should be 200 seeds/m2, however should conditions become compromised we recommend an increase of seed rate from 200 to 225-250 seeds/m2.  For malting barley seed rate should be increased from to 375-400 seeds/m2 in late drilled or compromised situations.

Late drilled winter barley has a higher propensity to lodge compared to early drilled winter barley.  This should be considered when planning PGR applications in the spring for any crop of winter barley drilled into November.

Malting requirements should be taken into consideration for late drilled winter malting barley.  Lower yielding crops won’t have the dilution effect on % Grain N, therefore for late drilled crops, total Nnitrogen should be adjusted to reflect decrease yield.

Winter wheat has a much wider drilling window than winter barley, often being planted from early September through to the New Year. Recent seasons have tested us with challenging drilling conditions throughout the autumn which has resulted in many winter wheat crops being planted very late. Fortunately, this drilling season has been more open, and the majority of planned autumn cereals are in the ground but there remains some 2nd wheat and fields following root crops still to go in. GLEAM and SY INSITOR varieties have demonstrated excellent performance in the late drilled slot.

Growers should make a judgement call based on local conditions including soil type, seedbed quality and weather. Combining this with previous experience and local practice is also important. Waiting for spring cropping may be a better alternative where conditions are poor but with current mild conditions across the UK, a good late drilled crop can still be established.

It would be good practice to increase seed rates to account for reduced plant establishment as well as reduced tillering ability, to help maintain yield potential. Late drilled crops, sown beyond the end of November will have less vernalisation and will not be able to compensate for poor establishment as well as early sown crops can, consequently seed rates should start from around 400 seeds/m2.

True winter wheat varieties have a vernalisation requirement. They must be exposed to an extended period of cold temperatures in order to trigger flowering and without this, plants remain in the vegetative stage and will not produce an ear. Vernalisation is an inherited characteristic that prevents winter wheat developing a flowering meristem too early and consequently being damaged by cold weather. Different varieties have different vernalisation requirements, hence different latest sowing dates on the recommended list and this should be considered. 

So, when is the right time to move to a spring crop? 

Spring barley is a versatile crop which in good conditions can be drilled as early as December.  Spring crops have no or very low vernalisation requirements and so they can be drilled through to April.  Early drilled crops will have longer to tiller and therefore have a high yield potential, but they will also be exposed to disease for longer and therefore regular monitoring and an increase in fungicide timings may be required.  Malting premiums will be dependant on grain size and % grain nitrogen which will be different for brewing or malt distilling.  All this should be taken into account when deciding on nitrogen applications in the spring.

Growers should be aware that in respect of crop protection, any crop sown before 31st January is classified as a winter crop by CRD and any grown after this date is classed as a spring crop.  This will have implications on management decisions, including seed care and herbicide applications.  Some products recommended for winter cereals may not be suitable for spring barley even if it is sown in the winter.

Conditions on farm will be the biggest driver of when to switch from a winter to a spring crop, as the end of the drilling window for winter barley is rapidly approaching. Spring barley can soon be drilled, and give a strong crop particularly on light soils, but in many cases a winter break might be the best strategy to allow soil conditions and the weather to improve.