GROWERS of spring sown malting barley are being urged to up their game to maximise the potential from what is Scotland's most important cereal crop.

They are being urged to 'front-load' their agronomy to maximise the yield and quality achieved from what can be a comparatively short growing season.

That starts with sowing 'realistic' seed rates for individual field conditions and building nutrition early to support strong plant development were fundamental building blocks for a successful barley crop, according to Farmacy’s spring barley specialist, Dr Bob Bulmer.

"Without regular measurements, it was sometimes easy to overestimate establishment percentage in spring crops, which typically varied from 60-90% on many farms. This had big implications for the plant population, ear number and final grain yield," he argued.

“Yield is driven by grain number, which in turn is determined by ear number and tiller density. Barley, particularly two-row varieties, has less capacity to produce grains per ear compared to wheat, so getting the right number of plants established is a critical step in achieving high yields. You must be realistic about field losses when planning seed rates.”

A crop with 600 ears/m2 for example, would typically yield 6t/ha (assuming 21 grains/ear), whereas 800 ears/m2 would yield nearer 8t/ha, he noted.

Variable seed rates were a useful way of producing more uniform plant stands where soil type and seedbed conditions varied within fields and systems, such as Omnia, provided an ideal opportunity to do that, he said.

Dr Bulmer's 'front-loading' strategy is aimed at ensuring plants established quickly and there's no hindrance to crop development. “The main challenge with spring barley is to create sufficient biomass quickly enough so that crops can maximise light interception within the relatively short period between sowing and harvest.”

Early nutrition was key, he suggested, and there were benefits from applying nitrogen, phosphate and potash to the seedbed to ensure these vital nutrients were readily accessible to young developing plants. Phosphate in particular is needed for strong root development – essential if higher-yielding crops were to access sufficient nutrients throughout the season.

In-season tissue analysis is also a useful indicator of potential nutrient deficiencies and was relatively quick and inexpensive, he said. “Samples can be taken as soon as there’s enough leaf mass to do so, and you should get results back within seven to 10 days. It’s pretty indicative for most nutrients, although perhaps less useful for potash.”

Top tips:

• Sow into good seedbeds as spring barley is very sensitive to poor soil conditions.

• Consolidate well to improve seed/root-to-soil contact.

• Build fertility early - apply nitrogen, phosphate and potash to seedbed or soon after drilling.

• Use early tissue analysis to identify nutrient deficiencies (eg manganese).

• Growth regulators can benefit rooting and tillering.

• Consider foliar magnesium GS31 to flowering.

• If irrigating in dry years, best time is shortly after ear emergence to support grain fill and late biomass production.

• Grain analysis provides a useful retrospective measure of deficiencies to correct next season.