Lessons learnt in 2018 have highlighted the importance of good spring barley establishment, according to leading plant breeders, Limagrain UK.

Despite a topsy-turvy spring, there were success stories, with good yields achieved where growers used windows of opportunity in both early March and April to drill into good seed-beds and plenty of moisture, pointed out Ron Granger, its arable technical manager.

However, where these chances weren’t taken, rapidly drying seed-beds towards the end of the drilling window in April saw crops establish poorly and suffer as a consequence, particularly on heavier soils. It is known that drilling in late February or early March can boost yield potential, so growers should aim to drill earlier if the season allows, he added.

“My view is that drilling should not be delayed if both weather and soil conditions allow for rapid emergence and unchecked plant growth. If growers are pushed later, like we saw in 2018, it’s vital to wait for the right seed-bed conditions to allow good crop establishment. The last thing you want is for a crop to start growing, run out of moisture and grind to a halt,” explained Mr Granger.

In addition, seed rates were also important for optimising yield in 2018, particularly as many crops were not established well into April. Being flexible is the key when calculating spring barley seed rates and Limagrain trials have shown a good starting point for most varieties is 350 seeds/m2 when sown into optimum conditions in mid-March. This could be adjusted down if drilling earlier and in very good conditions.

Conversely, growers need to push up seed rates when drilling after the end of March, as varieties have less time to tiller and reach the optimum final ear count of 775 ears/m2.

“Some of the very late-drilled crops in 2018 were in the ground for less than four months and seed rates of 550 seeds/m2 were not uncommon. This was the only way a good final ear number and optimum yield could be achieved in many cases,” said Mr Grainger. “Choosing a vigorous tillering variety will help, as it will give some reassurance that the optimum tiller count will be reached.”

LG Diablo and LG Tomahawk – new spring barley additions last season at the top of the AHDB Recommended List – were higher tillering and have performed very well in 2018, despite tough conditions. “Varieties that produce higher tiller counts also show benefits in high stress situations, as they will be able to compensate where plant numbers are low,” he argued.

Another aspect from a challenging 2018 was tiller survival in later-drilled spring barley crops due to reduced fertiliser uptake. Mr Granger advocated a split dose approach and Limagrain trials, run in conjunction with Scottish Agronomy, showed a yield benefit from applying 150kg/ha of total N, with 120kg/ha in the seed-bed – as is standard practice – and an additional 30kg/ha N at tillering.

“Too many growers apply all the crop’s nitrogen requirement in one dose and hope for the best – that’s a bad idea, particularly when it’s dry. Be aware of the moisture status in the soil and ensure that the plants will be able to use the nitrogen straight away or you risk wasting N and losing tillers,” he said.

It’s is not all about nitrogen, though, with adequate available phosphate in the soil imperative for crop growth and maintaining shoot numbers, and micronutrients also play an important role in establishment, rooting and maintaining tillers.

Lessons from 2018:

Drill early where seed-beds are suitable for rapid establishment

Exercise patience if drilling is delayed and wait for optimum conditions

Use a benchmark seed rate of 350 seeds/m2 for mid-March

Adjust seed rates upwards if sowing date is pushed back into April

High tillering varieties perform better in stressful situations

Be flexible with nitrogen applications to ensure maximum N use efficiency

Use balanced macro and micro nutrition to protect tiller numbers

Ensure plants do not suffer any stress to maximise yield potential – this applies to all spring crops.