Rising demand for malting barley products and new plant breeding techniques will reinforce spring barley's place in many rotations over coming years, according to speakers at a Farmacy meeting in early Jan.
Spring barley faced major challenges last season and has been regarded as a Cinderella crop in the past, but grown correctly with the right contracts in place, it has a really good place on farm," Farmacy agronomist Peter Riley told growers gathered at the St George's Distllery near Thetford in Norfolk.
"East Anglian malting barley is already a big success story, the market is expanding and there's great technology coming from breeders."
Mark Ineson from leading global malt supplier Muntons, said the firm had just announced £73m of investment over the next decade as it sought to meet rising demand for malt products produced at its sites in Stowmarket and Bridlington. He acknowledged there was uncertainty about 2019 trade given Brexit, but the underlying market remained strong, especially in East Anglia where demand exceeded supply.
End-user variety and quality requirements varied though, so he encouraged growers to avoid "recreational" growing and to tailor variety choice and agronomy to buyer specifications. Equally if spring barley was being grown for blackgrass control, that should remain the focus, with agronomy tailored accordingly, he said.
Mark noted growers on lighter land were typically best placed to achieve the low grain nitrogen (<1.6%) required for distilling or brewing, while those on heavier land close to south coast ports could be better targeting the higher nitrogen (<1.85%) specs favoured by exporters.
"Consider your local markets, the specifications maltsters want and be clear about what can be achieved on your farm and soil type." he advised.
Technological improvements in plant breeding are helping bring new varieties to market more quickly, offering improved agronomics and end-user compatibility, added Cathy Hooper from RAGT.
Double-haploid breeding, for example, was used to produce leading spring barley variety RGT Planet, and took about two years off conventional breeding techniques, she said.
Growers had the opportunity to gain an insight into the distilling process at St George's distillery, home of the English Whisky Company.
Using genetic markers to identify desirable traits, such as disease resistance or yield, was another way technology was helping. She highlighted the firm's involvement with other companies and institutes in the Impromalt project, which is developing markers for quality traits to improve winter malting cultivars.
Work is also ongoing to develop low-GN (glycosidic nitrile) varieties for distilling, with a low-GN version of RGT Planet (currently approved for brewing) about to enter its second year of official trials and could be commercially available in 2022, she said.