Case Study: Southern Growers Discussion Group, Hampshire
Agronomy+ works with to research and redefine spring barley growing
Two years on from first getting together to share their experiences and improvement ideas, a pioneering group of Agrii growers are developing a spring barley recipe fit for the 21st Century with the aid of purpose-built agronomy trials and advice.
The Hampshire-based spring barley discussion group comprises 12 southern counties farming businesses growing over 4000 ha of the crop, working with Agrii agronomists, Mark Glover and Peter Gould and researchers at the AgriiFocus Technology Centre.
From Agrii’s initial evaluation of all the latest spring barley growing research and advice from the UK and beyond, the group identified a series of questions that needed answering to enable members to reliably improve performance from levels already well above industry norms.
Integrated downland growing system trials to address these are bridging important gaps in the science, providing them with the confidence to push crop output and consistency to new levels within all-important grain nitrogen constraints.
Identifying the Key Needs
“High performance for spring malting barley is defined as 6.3 t/ha in even the most recent John Nix Pocketbook with standard agronomy recommendations very much linked to this level of output,” commented group member, Dick Hall from Corehampton to the south east of Winchester.
“Yet, as experienced growers, most of us are disappointed if we don’t bring in comfortably over 7.5 t/ha these days. And we know we can get more than 9t/ha from some crops. What we need is science-based agronomy we can rely on to consistently deliver at these levels.”
“While we’re all achieving good yields from our crops by most standards, we’re keen to keep raising the bar,” added Nick Rowsell from Stoke Charity on the other side of Winchester. “Especially so, with spring barley becoming so much more important to us under growing financial – not to mention weed and disease management – pressures.
“Mark must have picked up on this from our individual questioning because he brought us together in December 2013, assembling the most up-to-date spring barley research from Ireland and Poland as well as the UK as the basis for our discussions.
“It was immediately clear there wasn’t enough good science on agronomy to support the sort of performance we knew to be possible with modern varieties. Although we all wanted the same thing, it was also obvious we were working on very different recipes – with sowing rates ranging from 250 to 450 seeds/m2, nitrogen applications from 110 to 190 kg/ha and a variety of PGR regimes.”
So the group went back to basics, defining the productive heads/m2, grains/ear and TGWs required to deliver 9t/ha-plus yields and examining the agronomic essentials driving these components. It was rapidly agreed that both seed rates and nitrogen applications needed to be higher than most members were using and any initial N should be placed in the seedbed rather than applied to it after sowing.
But what seed rates should be used for different varieties, sowing dates and conditions
What levels and types of N should be applied and when? And what PGR regimes were required to optimise performance at the higher seed and nitrogen rates envisaged?
To address these crucial questions Agrii’s western R&D team took up the challenge, designing and establishing a series of carefully controlled trials in less than six weeks at its Marlborough site.
“This was just what we needed,” stressed Arable Farmer of the Year, David Miller of the Wheatsheaf Farming Company near Basingstoke who has also been involved with the group from the outset. “Proper, integrated growing systems research geared to our particular requirements rather than traditional product-proving trials.
“The first year’s work showed the importance of well-placed seedbed N, the value of protected urea over ammonium nitrate and the opportunities for increasing total nitrogen levels without exceeding malting specs.
“As a result, we’re stepping-up the 140 kg N/ha rate we’ve been using at Wheatsheaf for almost as long as I can remember, applying a good amount of nitrogen alongside the seed with our Cross-Slot drill rather than continuing to spread it after drilling, and looking to switch from AN to OEN (Origin Enhanced Nitrogen). Alongside cover cropping to capture nutrients and improve soil structure as part of our developing no-till regime, this should allow us to push on from the record 8.1 t/ha we averaged with our spring barley last season.”
Dick Hall and Nick Rowsell have also been developing their spring barley growing recipes positively in response to group discussions and the developing Agrii trials programme, moving to OEN in the seedbed and matching seed rates, nitrogen levels and PGR regimes increasingly closely to the abilities and strengths of modern varieties.
“Growing half our spring barley for seed, we had pushed N applications up to 180 kg/ha in many cases in the past, “explained Dick Hall. “Then two years with too many crops on the floor led us to pull things back to no more than 145 kg/ha.
“Our group discussions and trials have, however, given us the confidence to raise our sights again with better nitrogen timing and a good early application of safened chlormequat on modern varieties like RGT Planet and KWS Irina, both of which gave us 9t/ha last season.”
“We’ve upped seed rates from 270-300 seeds/m2 to 385-400 seeds/m2,” Nick Rowsell reported. “We’ve also switched to incorporating N in our seedbeds rather than spreading it on the surface and moved away from religiously applying 130 kg/ha of total N.
“With 140 kg N/ha our 140 ha of Odyssey averaged 8.8 t/ha last season, almost every load coming in below the 1.65% N specification for UK malting. Averaging 9.2 t/ha from the same regime, all 160 ha of our 2015 KWS Irina was nicely under the 1.8% N maximum we need for export too.
“With this experience, we’re increasing our standard nitrogen applications to 150 kg/ha in the coming season, with 50kg/ha in the seedbed, 70kg/ha by GS13 and 30kg/ha later. We’re also looking to incorporate protected phosphate in the seedbed and employ variable seed rates to improve the consistency as much as level of crop performance. And we may be adding foliar phosphite to our early PGR to further boost rooting.”
While pushing crop performance to deliver the least possible cost/tonne is a key objective of the discussion group, equally important to all those involved is reducing their cropping risk.
“Spring barley has been by far our most consistent margin earner over the past six years,” pointed out David Miller. “Even so, it’s crucial we guard against the bad growing years we know we can have with the crop.”
“When we have a bad spring barley growing year we don’t want to be having a bad crop of spring barley,” stressed Nick Rowsell. “That’s at least as important a driver as extra output for pooling our knowledge and working with the best available local research.”
“As we move into our third year of group discussions and trials with Agrii, the extra intelligence and confidence we’re gaining from them is allowing us to develop just the sort of resilient, high margin-earning spring barley growing recipe we need,” concluded Dick Hall.