12th September 2022

High seed rates and early nitrogen; the secret to distilling barley success

Growing spring barley for distilling has proved a straightforward affair for Essex grower John Hare who moved away from malting types in 2011 in pursuit of greater financial returns.

Mr Hare farms on his own near Saffron Walden, Essex and employs a simple system based around winter wheat, spring beans, winter oats and spring barley.

After nearly 10 years of growing the variety Optic for malting he decided to switch to a higher yielding type and it was at this time that he began to consider growing for the distilling market.  Although he was confident of meeting the lower grain nitrogen limit of 1.65% he was conscious that his 400 acres of mainly London boulder clay could present some difficulties.

“The market for brewing malt has been in decline for many years while the distilling sector is booming driven by growing demand for Scotch whisky. I realised I would have to make the change at some point and with premiums in excess of that offered for malting types I thought ‘why wait?’,” he says.

Aware of the tighter specifications for distilling malt however, he gave it serious thought. “In 10 years of growing Optic I consistently achieved a grain nitrogen content of 1.7-1.8%, but after much consideration I came to the conclusion that with the right variety, a high seed rate drilled early and with nitrogen applied soon after I could achieve the 1.65% N limit without impacting yield,” he says.

His judgement proved correct. Led by Openfield barley trader Bob Bingley, Mr Hare plumped for Concerto, the favoured variety of distillers due to its high grain spirit yield bred by Limagrain.  Last spring his 26ha of Concerto was drilled between 2nd and 5th April – admittedly a little later than is considered ideal – and produced a respectable 6.9t/ha with an average grain nitrogen content of 1.62%.

With premiums over November futures currently heading for £30/tonne due to a decline in the planted area across much of Europe he plans to stick with Concerto.

According to Limagrain senior barley breeder Mark Glew if new distilling growers were to follow John Hare’s experience they too should find meeting the grain nitrogen specification relatively easy.

“Concerto is not a vigorous tiller so it is important to drill with a high seed rate otherwise the crop is unlikely to have the number of heads needed to dilute grain nitrogen. Growers should be aiming for about 800 heads/ sq. m heading in to harvest,” he says.

“If, as Mr Hare manages, growers can apply all the nitrogen in one application as soon as possible after drilling this will also help meet target grain N specification,” he adds.

Openfield arable technical manager David Leaper, who has spent recent months advising recently converted growers how best to manage the crop, agrees.

“Heavy land of the types that is commonplace across East Anglia is not what we might consider ideal ground for distilling barley, but by mimicking the practices of growers in Scotland we can produce low-nitrogen grain successfully.”

“In most cases a seed rate of 250-300 seeds/metre squared would be acceptable, but on heavier land growers are advised to push this up to 350-400 seeds/sq. m. Typical nitrogen applications of 100-120kg N/ha should then be applied soon after drilling, ideally within 72 hours,” he adds.

For Mr Hare, Concerto spring barley has proven to be a cheap crop to grow with most weeds taken out before cultivations with a single application of glyphosate. A high burden of wild oats and broadleaved weeds meant the crop received a further two herbicides in season while last year the crop received its first fungicide around mid-May and a second about five weeks later, around 26th June.

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