David Bell, of Strathkinness, near St Andrews and his Agrii agronomist, Iain Anderson, have underlined their across-the-board prowess in barley growing with two national Golds in the 2020 ADAS YEN competition.

They followed-up their Scottish winter barley success from the 2019 competition by carrying off the top UK award for best percentage of winter barley 'potential yield' with an 11.9t/ha crop of Senova’s Bordeaux – fully 84% of its calculated potential.

Not content with this, the team also claimed the best spring barley yield award with a massive 11.3t/ha from LG Diablo in a season in which the average entry in the competition did 7.1t/ha. What’s more, it all went for malting.

“The winter barley was a welcome surprise, but it’s the spring barley we’re most proud of,” says Mr Bell. “Our ground sat cold and wet all winter and, although it was the first crop we drilled, we couldn’t get it until near the end of March. Then the spring turned so dry. We certainly didn’t think we were in for anything special.

“But the emphasis we’ve always placed on soil health and the little and often approach we took with the crop’s agronomy really paid dividends in allowing it to cope with the season’s challenges. Fence-to-fence across the 6.5ha field in which we grew the YEN crop, we averaged a dried yield of 10.8t/ha. At current malting values, that’s the sort of performance we wish we could get from every crop.”

Feeding the soil, then feeding the crop has long been David and Iain’s recipe at Upper Magus Farm. A mixed rotation including grass leys for the suckler herd and regular additions of farmyard manure from beef finishers, topped-up with ‘imported’ chicken muck, have built soil heath to enviable levels on much of the clay loam ground, giving it a resilience that is proving especially valuable in dealing with today’s climatic extremes.

Broad-spectrum soil analysis for the 2020 YEN crop, for instance, showed an organic matter of 7.2% together with first class soil microbial and health indices of 4.6 and 5.3, respectively, on the 1-6 NRM Laboratories’ scale.

“Soil analysis is a valuable starting point for us, but we find regular tissue testing throughout the season essential to tailor our nutrition to the crop and conditions,” Iain Anderson pointed out. “Last season, in particular, we were finding in-plant deficiencies of nutrients that weren’t low in the soil – most likely due to the stressful weather conditions, underlining the importance of not just relying on soil analysis.

“We tailored our foliar nutrition more precisely than ever in the YEN fields and the extra tonnes it gave us handsomely rewarded the additional spend. This experience gives us the confidence to take the same approach more widely across the farm from now on.

“As well as P and K on the stubbles prior to cultivation, we applied all the crop’s nitrogen at sowing for the best possible start and to avoid grain N issues with the 130 kg/ha we were using. Both this approach and our option of liquid application really helped when it turned dry.

“Seeing how dry the spring was shaping-up to be, we went in with manganese, a low dose of PGR to promote rooting and tillering, and the biostimulant, Zonda for extra stress tolerance at GS30.

“The Covid-19 lockdown meant we didn’t get our spring barley tissue tests back before we needed to go in with our prothioconazole-based T1. But the earlier results from the winter barley next door showed the crop was struggling with potash, magnesium and boron. So, reasoning that the spring crop was almost certainly also suffering in the dry conditions, we added these trace elements to the tank along with a little more PGR.”

With the drought building, the same foliar trace elements and Zonda were used at T2 alongside the team’s SDHI-based fungicide. To protect the ear and top-up the foliar programme a triazole + strobilurin head spray was applied at GS59.

“It certainly wasn’t a traditional two-spray spring barley programme,” Mr Anderson accepted. “But, by going in little and often, we were able to react to the season, giving the barley the nutritional and crop protection support it needed at the right time and, importantly, without stressing it with big tank mixes.

"Proof of the pudding was a crop that held-on well with no brackling to deliver an exceptional yield of high-quality malting grain at 1.48% N.”

This clearly underlines the extent to which modern spring barleys like LG Diablo can be pushed for yield without compromising quality, even in a challenging season. Providing, of course, they have the benefit of healthy soils and the right agronomy for the conditions.

“We have been delighted with our latest YEN experience,” says Mr Bell. “As well as validated proof of the sort of performance we can achieve, benchmarking what we do against others across the country is really useful. But the best thing about it is all the facts and figures on crop growth, development, yield components and nutrition we get back from ADAS.

“These are allowing Iain and I to pinpoint the things that work best and offer us the greatest potential for improvement so we can extend them across the rest of our cropping. The knowledge we get from AHDB and SRUC has also been key in helping us implement an IPM strategy to complement both the growing health of our crops and soils. But there's still plenty to learn yet!

“We see all this intelligence being particularly valuable too in assessing our progress in moving from a traditional plough and power harrow drill establishment approach to reduced tillage and direct drilling wherever possible.

“As with all our management, we’re reducing our tillage steadily based on the needs and condition of each crop and field. And while we hope it will help us further improve our soil health and resilience, we shan’t be getting rid of our plough anytime soon. That way we have the extra flexibility to deal with whatever the seasons throw at us.”