How the arable sector can weather the changes

Arable farmers have some help in choosing the most suitable varieties to grow. Picture: PA
Arable farmers have some help in choosing the most suitable varieties to grow. Picture: PA
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Huge variations in weather conditions across growing seasons have set arable farmers some serious challenges in recent years. Not least amongst these has been choosing the right varieties to grow – as some have struggled to cope with the changeable seasons.

And with climate change and a tendency towards more unpredictable weather looking set to have an increasingly significant impact on both the yield and quality of crops, the Home Grown Cereal Authority (HGCA) has revealed that the hunt is on to find a means of gauging how sensitive different varieties are to a range of conditions.

Speaking yesterday at the launch of the new recommended lists, Dr Simon Oxley, senior research manager with the HGCA, said that weather stations had already been set up at all major trial sites:

“And although we currently give varietal recommendations based on geographical areas,” he said, “a better understanding of how crops perform in different types of weather conditions will help us to factor that into our recommendations as well – and help us identify the more robust performers.”

He said that, although recording was already under way, researchers were still looking at different methods of statistical analysis to find the best way of including these results in the recommended lists.

Currently the yields reported for varieties on the list are averaged over five years for cereals and four years for oilseed rape. “And for newcomers we already use statistics to rate them as if they had been grown over a longer period”, said Oxley, who added that many of the recent top performers had proved to be fairly consistent over a range of seasons.

However, as far as the recommended list itself was concerned, there was little to excite Scottish spring barley growers who were aiming for the all-important distilling market. For, despite record sales and export of whisky resulting in a growing demand for suitable malting varieties, there was no change to the list for this market – and one of the main varieties still grown, Optic, had first appeared on the list almost 20 years ago.

Commenting on the lack of new varieties this year, Lee Robertson, arable marketing manager with Limagrain – which has bred three of the five varieties currently approved by the distillers – expressed a belief that this would be a one-year hiatus. “The distilling market remains a key target and although there were no new entrants this year we have four varieties currently at the trials stage and hopefully they will be coming forward next year,” he said.

He added that, with a limited gene pool, breeding new stocks which outperformed the existing high yielding varieties took time.

Back at the list, Oxley suggested that growers of feed barley in Scotland took a look at Shada, which topped both the treated and untreated yield tables.

“It is also stiff strawed and resistant to brackling,” he added, “and has good resistance to mildew, brown rust and ramularia.”