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How to weigh up the pros and cons of growing winter barley

While harvest 2023 is just over 10 months away many plans are now already taking shape for the makeup of next years cropping mix. Shay Phelan, Teagasc Crops Specialist, writes about the pros and cons of growing winter barley.

Winter oilseed rape crops are now drilled and by all accounts the area will be at least similar to 2022, winter wheat crops performed well for many growers as did winter oats so the areas of both of these crops will be largely similar too. However, the total area of winter barley that is going to be planted in the coming weeks is very uncertain, a combination of poor yields, poor aphid control and the performance of spring crops, will all be considered by growers before they decide to plant.

From talking to farmers over the last few weeks many were left disappointed by the performance of winter barley, in what was otherwise a very good harvest. Many commented that spring barley out performed winter crops with much less cost and risk. Indeed, it is the term “risk”, that has so many farmers feeling nervous about growing the crop for the coming season especially given the prices being quoted for fertiliser recently. From our provisional Costs and Returns for 2023 we can see that winter barley will cost between €300 to €400 per hectare more to grow than spring barley so it is no wonder many will wait until they see what is going to happen to prices in the spring before deciding to drill. However, as we all know rarely are two years the same so while winter barley may have been the poor relation in 2022 this could very well be a different story in 2023.

Where crops performed poorly in 2022 sit down and try to figure why winter barley didn’t yield, here are a few suggestions that I think may have had a negative impact last year;

  1. Drilling too early – some crops were drilled in mid to late September, this will have increased disease and lodging pressure while also making BYDV more difficult to control.
  2. Second cereal slot – second wheats are now nearly a thing of the past given the cost of growing winter wheat, so winter barley has been grown on many farms in that slot. Remember that barley can also suffer from take-all, this will have been exaggerated by early drilling.
  3. Weeds – grass weeds were evident in some crops with bromes and wild oats among others, competing for light and resources.
  4. P&K holidays – with the price of fertiliser this spring there was plenty of discussion about reducing the amount of phosphorous and potassium applied to crops, where soil indices were low or pH was very high this could have impacted crop growth and development during the spring.
  5. Tank mixing- the lists of products going into tank mixes seems to be getting longer and longer by the year. Again last spring we have seen crops being scorched in March and April from too many chemicals being applied at the same time, barley crops usually don’t recover from this.
  6. Disease control- many growers went from a three spray strategy to a two spray strategy and while disease levels were generally low, some crops did suffer especially from ramularia late on.
  7. Spray timings – the change from a three to a two spray strategy did affect the timings of the fungicide applications with the final fungicide being applied far too late in some cases. Again recently I was questioned at a group meeting about the last timing at awns emerging, trials have consistently shown that up to 0.4t/ha are lost by delaying that application by two weeks or until the heads are flowering.
  8. Ramularia – 2022 seemed to be a high ramularia year and the loss of chlorothalonil was keenly felt, although folpet in a mixture with an azole does give a reasonable response.

When making your decision as to how much winter barley to grow if any, remember the benefits of growing the crop such as extra straw, earlier harvest, spreading the workload and it’s a good entry crop for winter oilseed rape etc.

There were also plenty of crops that did perform well in 2022 and generally these were the crops that were in good rotations, crops that received organic manures or the recommended levels of N, P and K. Later drilled crops i.e. October planted, also seemed to perform better with less disease early on and seemed to have less BYDV in them also which in turn reduced the growing costs.

It is important, therefore, in the current climate to weigh up all the pros and cons of growing winter barley, look back at the long-term averages of the crop on the farm and then make a decision as to whether or not to continue with it. We have seen before that knee jerk reaction and basing decisions to what happened solely in the previous harvest, rarely work.

Find out more information and advice from the Teagasc Crops team here. Find your local Teagasc office here