Is spring wheat set to make a return?
Growers are under appreciating the risks associated with late-autumn drilling of winter wheat and, in some cases, would be better moving to spring crops, say experts.
Over the past six years the average drilling date for winter wheat has moved back by about seven to 10 days, from late September to about 9th October, suggests data gathered by ProCam.
According to Nick Myers, the firm’s head of crop production, this shift reflects the increasing problem posed by problem weeds, such as resistant black-grass and rye grasses, and the need to kill-off an autumn weed flush before drilling takes place.
This move is quite understandable, he says, but is worried that some are failing to consider the potential pitfalls from delaying drilling further into the autumn.
“The loss of yield potential from moving from mid-September to the end of October is relatively small and quite acceptable at about 0.25t/ha on average, but delaying much beyond October can increase yield reductions and make grass weed control more problematic as/if soil and weather conditions deteriorate. The assumption that conditions will be favourable and that all varieties perform equally well at later drilling dates is rarely true; it is this risk that many fail to consider,” he says.
Seedbed conditions at drilling are arguably more important than drilling date and data gathered by ProCam suggest that the best 25% of growers by gross margin are less constrained by the desire to drill on a set date.
“Waiting for conditions to improve is largely a question of nerve. Our data from autumn 2015 suggests the top 25% of growers were less concerned by date whereas the there was a distinct bell curve around early October among the rest. The best growers also spend less on herbicides at £86/ha compared with £101/ha for the rest.”
Trials endorse this point, says John Miles, KWS product development manager. “In a perfect world we would all drilling into excellent seedbeds, but when conditions are against you there comes a point when it is better to wait until the spring,” he says.
It’s a widely supported fact, says Nick Myers. “If autumn herbicides are to work effectively there needs to be greater recognition of the importance of seedbed quality. Fine seedbeds ensure even distribution and availability of residual herbicides to germinating weed seedlings. Too many clods and weeds can’t access the herbicide and develop in untreated soil as the clods weather and break down.
Chart 1 below provides an illustration of how black-grass control varies according to ground conditions. It reflects the success that can be enjoyed in a mild autumn and winter and contrasts this with a poor year. Regardless of season however, the risk of poor control increases significantly once conditions deteriorate with the onset of wet weather and falling temperatures.
Chart 1: Weather is the principal factor supporting efforts to control black-grass during the autumn and winter months
Variety choice too is important, says John Miles. He worries that too few growers think about what characteristics they need in a variety to over-come the problems that arise with delayed drilling.
“Autumn and spring vigour is perhaps the most important feature at this stage, but should not come at the expense of grain quality. In this situation, strong tillering varieties such as KWS Crispin and KWS Kerrin out-yield less vigorous varieties, such as Revelation or Skyfall by 6-8%. That is significant,” says John Miles.
Data from the AHDB Recommended List supports his point: Chart 2 shows that of the more popular varieties listed on the list, 12 have a yield performance of less than 100% of controls when sown between mid-November and the end of January.
Chart 2: Strong autumn vigour is essential for late-drilling performance
Source: AHDB Recommended List
There are other issues to consider beyond weed control however, such as pest pressures.
“For some growers, late autumn drilling is simply too risky because of wheat bulb fly pressure in some years. In such situations, spring crops are the only alternative,” says John Miles.
All commentators advocate keeping to a planned approach when seeking to control black-grass rather than wavering in the face of favourable conditions that tempt growers to change cropping plans or push-on with autumn drilling.
“In low-pressure scenarios, be flexible with drilling date and focus on seedbed quality. In mid-pressure situations, delay autumn drilling where possible to increase opportunities for good black-grass control. In high-pressure situations however, there is little option but to move straight to a spring crop policy,” explained John Miles.
Spring crop choice
The increasing popularity of spring barley across England, which in 2017 accounted for 57% of the entire barley area, suggests many growers have embraced this reality.
Chart 3: The area of spring barley in England passed 470,000 ha in 2017
Source: DEFRA, 2017
Many growers made the move to spring barley after being enticed by the prospect of a significant premium for meeting a traditional 1.85% N malting specification, but without considering the potential implications, says Paul Taylor, Agrii’s head of crop marketing.
“Growers bought in to the lure of premiums and promises that it was cheap to grow, yet a lot of spring barley grown in a black-grass situation goes as feed (unless on a specialist high N contract). The discount for feed barley can be between £8 and £30/t,” says Paul Taylor.
Both have their place in the rotation helping to spread the seasonal workload and crop risk, he says. While spring barley has been the most popular so far, he believes this could be about to change.
“Reality is sinking in and many are beginning to question their chances of reliably achieving a 1.85% N premium specification. For some the pressure at drilling is equally unrewarding. Spring wheats help spread the work as they can be sown earlier, often from January whereas spring barley is typically drilled from mid-March when there is plenty else going on,” he says.
“I fear some growers are swapping one monoculture for another without realising it. We need greater diversity in the rotation if we are to win the battle with black-grass. Take the spring wheats, Willow, Alderon and Kilburn, for example. Drilled in the spring rather than late winter, these varieties are at least a match for spring barley and, depending on the season, often out do it. They are strong contenders,” he says.
It is in this position that spring wheat is being under appreciated, he believes. Gross margin data from ProCam’s 4Cast benchmarking service supports this assertion, says Nick Myers.
“Across the top 25% of our growers, spring wheat returns about £86/ha more than spring barley at £772/ha. Across all growers, spring wheat produces an average gross margin of £557/ha on average which is about £100/ha better than the average spring barley gross margin,” he says.
Finally, seed availability is an issue that is under often appreciated by growers, says Paul Taylor. “Seed has to be processed and dressed and that takes time. If growers plan ahead and order a wheat that requires no vernalisation such as true spring varieties, they can take a planned approach and sow when there is a good weather window, rather than make spot decisions and have to take what is available, which may not be the best genetics for the situation,” says Paul Taylor.
KWS Sharki: the spring wheat with a German bite
KWS is set to introduce a high protein German E wheat for spring sowing after three years of field trials and baking tests showed it had the characteristics to succeed in the UK.
Dubbed as the ‘spring Montana’ in reference to the breeder’s winter-sown German E wheat that has proved successful with ADM, Sharki has produced its best performances on light land.
“Baking trials suggest it has equal if not better flour quality than the benchmark Group 1 winter wheat while on farm it has yielded far in excess of the same variety when both were sown in December. When sown against other spring wheats its performance is on a par with Mulika, but with significantly better specific weight as is to be expected from a German quality wheat,” says Kirsty Richards, KWS value chain manager.
KWS Sharki will undergo further trials and baking tests this winter before commercial crops for milling evaluation will be released in spring 2018, says Dr Richards.
“Sharki is an exciting new spring wheat prospect and it offers something more for growers with the performance characteristics to do well in both the winter sowing slot and as a true spring wheat,” adds Dr Richards.