Crop scientists are an optimistic bunch. That much became clear at a major cereal trials demonstration yesterday.
On both the national, short-term front, where Scottish grain farmers have been facing one of the most challenging years in living memory and on the longer-term global scene, where crop yields appeared to have reached an upper plateau, there is, they claimed, still everything to play for.
Commenting on the Scottish situation at the annual Cereal in Practice event held near Perth, Dr Steve Hoad, of the SRUC, said that although both winter and spring plantings had taken place in less than ideal conditions and the cold spring had hampered early growth, the weather over the next month would be the decisive factor:
“Sunshine in July is absolutely critical for grain fill and, despite crops being on the back foot, a bright warm month could still see both yields – and just as crucially quality – reaching reasonable levels.”
SRUC crop pathologist Dr Fiona Burnett added: “What happens in July sets the scene for ear diseases – and last year we saw shrivelled grains and half-filled heads as a result of this month being both cool and wet. That hit both the quality and quantity of the national harvest hard.”
Dr Burnett said that should the weather be less than ideal again this year, some lessons had been learnt from 2012: “Certainly, we found that there really wasn’t too much point in chasing ear disease complexes late into the season. A better bet would seem to be to go in harder with closer to the full rates of fungicide earlier in the season to stop them developing in the early stages.”
And she added that the widespread use of seed dressings had done a fantastic job of controlling seedling blight diseases – another carry-over from last year’s wet summer, remarking that the few incidents where these treatments had not been used had shown just how poor the baseline establishment might have been.
Commenting on the apparent plateau that had been reached on crop yields and the need to feed many more mouths in the future, Dr Bill Thomas of the Hutton Research Institute said that although there was no one single answer to the problem there was still a host of utensils in the breeder’s tool box that could be used to unlock the potential of higher yields.
Among these he listed recent developments in synthetic hexaploid wheats , the use of wild crop relatives as a means of extending the conventional gene pool, methods of improving crop architecture, biomass production and harvest indices and the use of genetic profiling as all playing their part.
He said that genetic modification might also play a role, but he indicated that on the cereal front, in most cases enough was not yet known to give the ideal package. However, it was also pointed out that farmers should not forget that the “back to basics” approach that made greater use of crop rotations also had an important role to play.