A move to direct drilling LG Diablo spring barley has proven successful for Berwickshire grower Neil White, as yields and quality impressed in a challenging season.
Mr White has been direct drilling crops for the past seven years at the 260 ha (650-acre) Greenknowe Farm near Duns, but until this season, had not established spring barley this way.
Traditionally, he favoured ploughing and power-harrowing spring barley ground, before sowing with a combination drill once soil was dry and warm enough, or sometimes drilling directly into the plough with his 3-metre Mzuri Pro Til 3T. He says ploughing reduces the risk of wheat volunteers emerging in the barley crop, and generally creates a good seedbed for barley to establish quickly.
“Barley has been the last crop I’ve gone over to direct drilling with, but we successfully tried it on two-thirds of our area this spring , sowing directly into overwintered stubble. The plan is to try and direct drill all of our barley again next spring, either into overwintered stubble or after a cover crop.
“It’s really pleasing for me to see that LG Diablo works in that direct drilled scenario, and still produce a good yield and grain quality. I’m very happy with it.”
The farm’s target spring barley yield is usually around 7.4-8.6 t/ha (3-3.5 t/acre), and this year’s 35 ha of LG Diablo was at the top end of that range, despite some very dry conditions during the growing season.
Quality was good too, with nitrogen coming in at 1.52%, and specific weight at 67.4 kg/hl, allowing everything to meet the malting specification required by grain buyer, Simpsons Malt.
“It produced a nice bold grain, despite the very dry spell. Everything hit the spec for malting, which is spot-on.”
Mr White acknowledges there were a few light grains this season, which he attributes to the lack of rain, preventing some grain from maturing and filling fully. “We certainly haven’t seen any issues with screenings before, so I’m sure it’s due to the year, not the variety.”
Mr White recognises that his Mzuri drill does move more soil than other direct drills, but believes this benefits barley establishment in the spring, as it helps aerate the soil, warm it up and mineralise some nitrogen.
Switching from a combination drill to the Mzuri has also allowed him to sow spring barley at variable seed rates to account for establishment differences on varied soil types, and put fertiliser ‘down the spout’ with seed, to get crops off to a good start.
Last year he applied a 10-26-26 N, P, K fertiliser, with some sulphur, at drilling, but next spring plans to reduce the total amount of phosphate and potassium applied due to high prices, instead opting for a 16-15-15 product.
Seed rates last season typically ranged from 380-440 seeds/m2 on the variable soils, with crops sown on 33cm rows. That is a much wider spacing than spring barley is conventionally sown at, but he believes LG Diablo’s vigour enables it to fill the gaps between rows nicely.
“Also, it doesn’t brackle, which is something that is always a threat if weather turns catchy at harvest, especially on wider rows.”
Mr White says LG Diablo has been pretty straightforward to manage, and has even allowed a slight reduction in spray costs.
“Previously, we used to apply a low rate of growth regulator to Concerto to encourage it to root and tiller, but we haven’t needed to do this with LG Diablo, which possibly reflects its strong vigour. I haven’t found it expensive to grow, especially as we just do a two-spray programme.”
Crops usually receive two fungicides; one with trace elements at Growth Stage 23 and a second at GS 39 with manganese.
Wider benefits of direct drilling
There are broader benefits from the full conversion to direct drilling too, not least in the fact that soil carries machinery a lot better when it is not ploughed, Mr White says. “That’s particularly noticeable at harvest.”
Moving less soil reduces total fuel consumption too, which saves money and improves the carbon credentials of direct-drilled malting barley, he adds. This could become more significant in the future as the UK continues its drive towards net zero and grain buyers look to secure supplies with a lower carbon footprint.
“I’ve often said that I should be receiving a small premium for low carbon barley, and LG Diablo ticks the box for that.”
In demand from distillers
LG Diablo’s consistency is valued by end users too, says Mike Dagg, senior grain trader at Simpsons Malt, who expects it to remain one of the top two varieties grown in Scotland for distilling over coming years.
“We’ve had the variety for five or six years now, and we know it goes through the malting process very well, from steeping the barley, to germinating and kilning, so that means we’re not losing time having to give it an extra day or two at any stage.
“If it performs well going through the malting process, then there’s every chance the malt product will also do well going through distilling too.”
Indeed, over the past few years, LG Diablo has shown consistently good performance in distilleries, both in terms of spirit yields and processability, which ultimately leads to good efficiency and maintains demand for the variety, he says.
“LG Diablo is now pretty universally accepted by the majority of the Scottish distilling industry, and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon.
“Because LG Diablo is so consistent, and benefits from dual use approval for brewing and distilling, it’s got the ability to compete with, and hold its ground against, any new varieties coming along. At the moment I don’t see anything coming through breeding programmes that suggests LG Diablo and Laureate will lose their dominance in the Scottish distilling market.”