Dote over them or dismiss them, the release of the AHDB’s annual recommended lists of cereal and oilseed varieties is always a talking point in the arable sector – and the announcement on the runners and riders for the 2019/2020 seasons earlier this week was no exception.

For while the tables might have been criticised for becoming more than a little bloated as the years have progressed – both in terms of the number of varieties included and the plethora of attributes covered – along with the silver tongue of the local seed merchant, they still play a major role in helping us decide which of the many varieties we will actually back with our hard-earned cash.

However, after years of growers making the right noises about looking at traits other than out-and-out yield under an expensive spray programme – and then voting with our wallets almost exclusively on this very attribute – it looks like breeders might be starting to take us at our word, or at least cautiously testing the waters in the winter wheat stakes.

For while once again some newcomers offer the usual few percentage points improvements in yield – and even those aren’t as marked for the north region – one of the most interesting figures from a Scottish growers perspective is a new variety with a Septoria tritici resistance rating of above 8, combined with a pretty good score card on other diseases.

Especially after reading last week’s article on the continued decline and breakdown in the effectiveness of chemical control methods on Scotland’s most costly wheat disease, the arrival of KWS Extase with a resistance rating of 8.1 amongst a sea of varieties with septoria ratings of between 5 and 6 stuck out like a beacon of hope.

So maybe the time has actually come when the cost of fungicides, together with the increasing levels of resistance to our current armoury of chemical control measures is truly making disease rating and untreated results a key factor in the choice of new varieties.

For in addition to its septoria score Extase has some pretty good scores for resistance to other diseases – the combination of which has given it a 95% rating in the untreated trials – putting it several lengths ahead of most of the competition.

But, as the bookies always seem to know, there has to be a flaw somewhere. Although the variety shows good yield potential in the north region, being a nabim Group 2 bread wheat, it’s a bit like entering a steeplechaser into a flat race – and it might not be overly relevant to the Scottish situation where the demand is for soft group 4s to supply the feed and distilling trades.

But such a step up in disease resistance does give you hope that there must surely be a potential to breed such resistance into some of our soft group 4 varieties as well – and the fact that the breeders are now cottoning on to the fact that increasingly both growers and buyers are focusing on areas other than out-and-out yield has to be a good sign.

Sadly, though, on the spring barley front there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of any major advances. So if you’re going for the malt distilling market you’ve really only got a choice of the four varieties old favourites with full MBC approval at the moment - Concerto which is now showing signs of getting a bit long in the tooth, Laureate, Sassy and Sienna.

It was also a bit disappointing to find that the AHDB has dropped scores for resistance to ramularia – but with so much variation between the performances of different varieties in different parts of the country, it would appear that any scores were more likely to be misleading than helpful.

But with little in the way of major improvements in the spring barley list for a year or two now, you might be led to wonder if Scotland is being viewed as bit of a backwater by the multi-national breeding corporations that do most of this work.

After all, with an output of less than 1.5m tonnes – and a lot of that grown from farm-saved seed – we’re probably not viewed as a major market.

However, help might be on the way.

And while it might fall short of Thunderbirds International Rescue, the International Barley Hub – which only a couple of weeks ago received a huge dollop of cash through the Tay Cities Deal – is now set to become a physical as well as a virtual reality –putting both the cereal and Scotland centre stage and giving them the recognition they deserve.

So with the long-hoped for cash now finally in its pocket, tenders are going out for the development – and its hoped that the builders will soon be in at the James Hutton Institute at Invergowrie outside Dundee – and the new facility should be up and running by 2022.

Together with the funding awarded for the Advanced Plant Growth Centre, the institute will gain a total grant of £62m, a major boost to the sector.

And Scotland is likely to become a world leader in barley research, benefitting from this new platform which is aimed at translating barley research into commercial benefits throughout the food, brewing and whisky supply chains – while at the same time providing an internationally recognised centre for the training and development of skills in barley research.

For the farming industry it should help us secure a consistent and sustainable future supply of high-quality barley with shorter development times for new varieties aimed at specific market – and such a world-leading research and development cluster should attract the best talent.

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