It’s a crucial time of the year for crops like winter barley and oilseed rape. All the work and expense carried out to date is in preparing these crops to maximise the benefit of sunshine during the crucial grain fill period which is about now for these crops.
Looking at winter barley, it has a very short grain fill period which makes it more susceptible than most crops to good weather conditions during this small window of opportunity. Good grain fill weather will deliver bumper crops, bad grain fill weather will deliver poor crops, it’s as simple as that. We cant spray on bright weather and cool temperatures, all we can do is look up and marvel at natures ability to ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ all the care and attention we have given to these crops for the past year.
Other weaknesses of the winter barley crop are also becoming apparent, such as its susceptibility to lodging. Growth regulation and variety selection has improved enormously on the crop to mitigate the risk of lodging. But the very nature of the crop is to be top heavy with heavy awns that can hold high levels of moisture. Again, it’s the weather that predominates at this time of year that will determine lodging levels of the crop, despite the best growth regulation programmes and fertiliser application timings.
A big weakness becoming evident across the country at this time of year is the poor arsenal of grassweed control available to the crop. Wild oats are poorly controlled relative to other crops, as is annual meadow grass and volunteers from other crops, esp wheat. But Sterile Brome grass, the real lunch money grabber, is in a different weight division in its ability to overcome winter barley. If the crop is to become a mainstream crop and maintain its current position of equal acreage to winter wheat, grass weed control is going to have to be radically improved with the crop.
Disease control is currently a strong point of winter barley, but again its only a matter of time, especially with poor resistance management programmes, before either Rhynchosporium or Net Blotch, or some other new disease, gets the better of our feeble attempts at controlling diseases.
And while we are at the blame game, the crop can show its greatest weaknesses in non-till and min till situations, especially where wider spacings are used at sowing. Placing a vulnerable crop in land where weed seeds were not ploughed down, with wide open spaces on either side of it and expecting a residual herbicide to prevent grassweed proliferation for 8 months in these open spaces is a bit of an ask, especially for a crop that matures so early in the season to allow light down to these open spaces.
With the high production costs of wheat and the ongoing risk of breakdown of septoria control, the default alternative crop appears to be winter barley. Winter barley as a crop has improved a huge amount in recent years, with improved varieties, improved husbandry and favourable weather conditions during grain fill in recent years which flattered the crop. However, promoting the crop to a main stream position is not really taking a risk mitigation approach to crop production in the long term. It’s taking a different risk, not less risk.