Having written a spoof piece on the national recommended list last time round, I thought I’d better give the real one a bit of a mention – a brand shiny new one for 2020 was launched at the beginning of this week.

The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) has always organised a big press launch down south in Peterborough when the new lists come out because it’s generally been considered to be quite a big deal. The agronomic characteristics of the latest raft of new varieties announced at the event are looked upon as an important starting point for choosing what to grow either next year, or to get some idea of what might catch on a few years down the line.

For the poor old Scottish agri-hack pack, though, the event tends to be a bit too far away to travel down to – especially on today’s eccies (expenses!).

The fact that a lot of the varieties which might be well suited to both the prevailing weather and market conditions down south tend not to fare so well under the colder, wetter and more whisky orientated climate on this side of the Border, also means that a lot of what is discussed often isn’t that relevant to our own markets.

So, we’ve always been lucky enough to be graced with a separate teleconference after the main event – which means we Scots can focus on what’s good for our own conditions, without hi-jacking the event entirely.

Now it might just be me, but I often find teleconferences a bit uncomfortable – partly, I guess, because you aren’t able to read the body language signals which help you to judge when someone else is wanting to either make a point, ask a question or seek some expansion on a particular issue. So, they often have either awkward silences or too many people speaking at once and cutting over each other.

This year, however, there wasn’t any problem on that front – because, rather surprisingly, I found that I was the only hack from the North who had registered for the briefing and so I found myself getting a one-to-one with Paul Gosling, who’s only recently taken over fronting the list.

Despite this personal attention, while the 20/21 list has seen the addition of 27 new varieties – and, thankfully, the removal of 21 – my initial impression on seeing it was that I kinda felt that for Scottish arable farmers there didn’t really seem to be a lot to blow their socks off or, indeed even get them all that excited …

Granted, there were four new spring barley varieties listed as currently being tested for malting and of course they carry the usual health warning that farmers should speak to their merchants about outlets before growing them. Two of these are being aimed at the brewing market and so aren’t of major interest up here.

But being tested for malt distilling, Firefoxx – yes, curiously, with two xx’s – is a new variety standing at 107%, compared to the reference yield varieties in the North. Another variety giving a similar level of yield in that region and being tested for both brewing and malting was Tungsten, so both these varieties could prove to be ones to watch if the distillers decide to take them on.

On the varieties already approved, both Laureate and Diablo – which have been cornering a fair share of the market in recent years – gained good yields for the North at 104% and 107%, respectively, with Sassy logging a respectable 103%. But poor old Concerto, with more than 10 years on the list, now looks to be trailing the pack at 95% – and indeed down at 93% in the North region – and it does seem to be getting elbowed out a bit after a good run. It’ll be interesting to see how its share of the acreage stands up this coming spring sowing season.

On the wheat front, I was on the verge of getting a bit excited by the new soft feed wheat, Saki, which combines near-group leading treated yield (104% of control varieties), with strong disease – septoria tritici (6.8), yellow rust (9) and brown rust (8) – and orange wheat blossom midge (OWBM) resistance.

However, rather disappointingly for Scotland, it’s got a low alcohol yield and so doesn’t look to be of much interest to the distilling trade, and being ruled out of this market outlet is a fair old handicap for many who might otherwise have considered growing it.

Another variety, Theodore, albeit a hard group 4, does hold out the offer of a really good septoria tritici resistance of 8.2 which might make it of some interest further into the future, given the loss of chlorothalonil next spring and the reduced efficacy of both SDHI’s and azoles in controlling this wheat disease which tends to be the biggest threat in Scotland.

But with the existing armoury of fungicides being depleted, there are some signs that the recommended list does seem to be pointing towards breeders beginning to focus more on disease resistance.

Paul Gosling pointed to the fact that the new list showed that almost two thirds of varieties had a resistance rating for septoria tritici of six or greater – and this contrasted quite markedly with the situation only four years ago when more than three quarters of varieties were rated below 5, showing that there had been some considerable advances:

“And while some new chemistry will soon be coming onto the market to help control septoria, this is likely to be much more expensive to use than chlorothalonil – so it will also be important that this is used in conjunction with varietal resistance to ensure longevity,” said Mr Gosling.

So, there is both a hope and indeed a need for a greater emphasis on disease resistance. This change in direction was probably shown at the greatest level in the oilseed rape list – where new options for all regions showed a big step forward in yields, combined with improved disease resistance. In this, the variety Aurelia, offering high resistance ratings (8) for both light leaf spot and phoma, as well as TuVY resistance, stands out.

Since the loss of neonic seed treatments a couple of years ago, turnip yellows virus (TuYV) resistance now features in a quarter of all recommended varieties while specialist varieties also offer new options for clubroot resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Perhaps one of the major developments with the recommended lists this year might be in how we’re able to use them. And here I must apologise for any major omissions from what’s new and important in the lists – for there’s almost bound to be some as they now contain so much information that it’s almost impossible to take all of it in.

Its no secret that the recommended lists have drawn a bit of criticism in recent years for that very reason, perhaps for not being selective enough – and becoming too unwieldy to handle as more varieties, more information and more tables seemed to be added every year.

However, an 18-month long project was undertaken by the AHDB to address this issue – and the solution offered comes in the shape of a new digital interactive ‘variety selection tool’, which was launched along with this year’s list.

But while the tool is now available, it does look like it might take a while to get the hang of it and I simply haven’t had a spare minute to give it the time it probably deserves.

I’m told, though, that by using filters to set your preferences and rank the relative importance of the various characteristics which you’re looking for on your own farm when selecting a new variety, the online tool can certainly help narrow down the choice. It can graphically display just which varieties are the closest to what you’re after while providing plenty of additional information to help you decide which candidate you should plump for.

If it does work, though – and harking back to my last tongue-in-cheek piece – it would be good if a similarly unbiased tool was available to help us make our choice for the up-coming election!

Look out next week for an in-depth appraisal of the rising stars from the Recommended List. It will help guide you through the new listings.