Agronomist maps the battleground for barley crop

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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Such is the scrabble for spring barley seed that some farmers may incorrectly assume that the quality of all seed is the same.

Eric Anderson, of Scottish Agronomy, said this week the background to the problem lay in the extreme shortage of seed brought about by the poor harvest last year and the vastly increased demand.

“Buyers may not get the variety they want, nor the quality they expect simply because it has to have been sourced outside Scotland and often outside the UK,” adding that some imported seed carried high levels of diseases such as loose smut.

“Do not assume that seed is all of the same standard. Know what the germination levels are, know what the disease levels are on the seed samples and that will allow you to decide what is the most appropriate seed treatment,” he advised.

Some 40 per cent of Scottish farmers sow their own farm-saved seed and this is perfectly legal, provided that they do not sell, barter or share the seed with neighbours.

All those who use farm-saved seed must declare this to the British Society of Plant Breeders which, Anderson said, was becoming far more active in targeting those who were flouting the regulations.

With last year’s weather affecting all seed, he warned that farm-saved seed was likely to be carrying far higher levels of diseases than normal, and that made it vitally important to ensure it received a correct seed treatment to prevent diseases such as ear blight affecting yields.

This disease, whose proper name is microdochium nivale, flourished in the damp May and June last year, leaving Anderson to say that levels of infection were running at 70 to 75 per cent with one or two up to 95 per cent.

“These are the highest levels of this disease I have ever seen,” he commented.

This made it essential to get proper seed treatment as failure to do so could knock germination of the 2013 crop.

As it was, he added, getting a good germination this season was going to be a big challenge with a number of factors such as slug numbers and low soil wet seed beds making life difficult.

Another challenge facing barley growers this year is to prevent skinning or loss of the husk of the crop.

Anderson said a feature of the new varieties coming through on the official recommended lists was their poor levels of resistance to skinning. He thought it was obvious plant breeders had been working on material “from the same stable”.

The other problem from the new varieties was that they were generally later to ripen than the standard variety Optic. This made them susceptible to weathering, which aggravates any skinning problem.

While malting barley samples this past year were accepted with up to 15 per cent skinning, he said it might be a different story this harvest.

“Last year, the maltsters were short and were prepared to relax from the standard 4 per cent allowance. This year, with the likelihood of more grain about, they might not be so tolerant.”