SPRING BARLEY is Scotland's most valuable arable crop. By some distance.

It is usually a crop that is also, as much as any other, destined by the weather for a good, bad or indifferent outcome. But, while dry weather is already playing its hand in perhaps limiting output (yes, already), it is the side-effects of the restrictions brought about by Covid-19 that will determine its real fate this season.

Much of our spring barley goes for distilling. As much as 35% of the crop is carefully managed to get within the best range of spec' for spirit production.

But here's the rub. That management also compromises yield to allow the grains to get within the low nitrogen scores that make so much difference in spirit yield. It is one of the main reasons why a premium needs to be paid to get malting barley of sufficient quality to maintain the reputation of the Scotch whisky industry.

However, given that much of the distilling trade is closed, not deemed to be a 'key' industry – other than the production of hand sanitiser – it leaves producers of barley with a dilemma. Go for yield and end up with feed quality barley, or go for malting spec' in the hope of achieving premium at an indeterminate time in the future?

For the latter – and usual – scenario, there needs to be clear messages given to producers. Firstly, the Scottish Government needs to back moves to re-open distilleries; and then the malting trade and distillers must affirm they intend to maintain the upward trend of Scotch whisky spirit production seen in the past few years.

The malting trade should be left in no doubt that if they want product this year, then they must make it worthwhile for those who forsake high yield to give them the quality it needs. The farmers' dilemma at this time is that if they feed and manage the crop for 'feed', given modern and higher yielding varieties, there is the potential to match gross margins from malting regimes.

Experts reckon that yield potential in Scotland can be as much as 10 tonnes per ha, but one of the main reasons that the Scottish average hovers around the six-tonne mark is a dedication to producing malting quality.

You don't need to be Einstein to work out that even an extra tonne per ha at feed price gets pretty close to matching the output of a malting crop. That means, more than ever this year, there is a tightrope to be walked by spring barley producers. And then there's the weather!

Please stick with us

FINALLY, can I make another plea for those experiencing difficulty in getting their edition of The Scottish Farmer, to bear with us. Like everyone else in our line of business, we are experiencing disruption to our normal lines of trading and that includes the threat that no post will be delivered by Royal Mail on Saturdays.

We re-iterate that we continue to produce each edition to our usual high standard and timing since Covid-19 restrictions have been in place and will continue to do so. However, we ask for patience in accepting that, inevitably, some deliveries may be late due to factors outwith our control.