A trip to New Zealand inspired a quest in Alberta for higher barley yields.
New Zealand farmers can produce barley crops topping 200 bushels per acre. Granted, New Zealand has some climatic advantages over Western Canada. But Steve Larocque, owner of Beyond Agronomy, saw no reason that Alberta barley growers couldn’t aim higher. Together with a team of agronomists and farmers, he decided to see what it would take to hit 180 bushels, and Barley 180 was born.
A literature review revealed that researchers had already grown 190 bushel barley crops in the late ’80s and early ’90s in southern Alberta. Those crops were grown in small plots, under irrigation. The Barley 180 team lined up funding to figure out which practices would push barley yields and provide the best returns on investment.
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Larocque presented research from 2011 to 2013 at Crop Sphere in Saskatoon. Growing conditions were favourable in 2011, he said. They hit 157 bushels per acre with Xena, and 141 bushels per acre with Champion.
But in 2012, they only saw six inches of rain, most of which came at the tail end of the growing season. Three trials were hailed out. Larocque said they did learn a few things about pushing yields in dry environments, and got up to 120 bushels per acre (again with Xena).
The next year, 2013, was more mixed. They got too much rain for barley, Larocque said, although the wheat thrived. They pushed Austenson to 135 bushels per acre, Xena to 126 bushels per acre, and AC Metcalfe and CDC Meredith both hit 125 bushels per acre.
The first step when setting lofty yield targets is to figure out plant density, Larocque told delegates at Crop Sphere in Saskatoon.
That also means having an idea of how many heads, and how many kernels per head, are needed to achieve yield. “Because from there you can start measuring in-season and measuring your management changes,” said Larocque.
Larocque said they found the sweet spot to be between 25 and 30 plants per square foot. Any higher and the plants would try to out-compete each other, Larocque said, and fall down. On the other hand, lower seeding rates make for an uneven crop, which made fungicide and plant growth regulator applications tricky.
Lessons learned on fertility
Farmers trying to hit high yield targets need to figure out what kind of nutrient uptake and removal they’ll see, Larocque said. A typical Barley 180 fertilizer program was 170N-40-40-20, with 100 lbs. of nitrogen banded early.
And although many farmers don’t fertilize barley with sulphur, if they’re pushing nitrogen rates, they need to bring sulphur into balance, he added.
“And you will see decent responses because if you look at those numbers, that’s no different than a 50 bushel canola crop.”
During the Barley 180 trials, Larocque found that adding nitrogen and phosphorus added heads to the barley crop — 92 heads per square foot versus 53 in one case. “So that little management change allowed us to jump up almost 40 (bushels per acre).”
Larocque noted they did see fewer kernels per head with the added nitrogen and phosphorus, but the extra heads more than made up for that.
Giving the crop that many groceries does carry risk. In a perfect world, a farmer would split the nitrogen application, Larocque said.
“But tillering begins around three-leaf. And your yield is built right there, between tillering and flag.” Because the crop is building yield so early, it needs the nitrogen early, he added.
Larocque said they did try splitting applications. In fact, they used a split application on the 157 bushel crop in the first year. But he noted it rained shortly after the second application. About 50 per cent of the time, they saw no response to a split application of nitrogen, he said.
They also tried ESN, as it’s worked well in other crops. But Larocque said the ESN wasn’t breaking down fast enough for the barley crop. He attributed this to cooler temperatures in the no-till soils, which slowed the breakdown of the ESN.
The potential of PGSs
Larocque said they trialed plant growth regulators (PGRs), but cautioned they’re not yet registered for barley in Western Canada.
They tried out Cycocel Extra, a BASF product that contains chlormequat chloride, for two years. However, it was expensive at the time, costing $46 per litre to bring it in. Overseas it’s about $1.50 per litre, said Larocque. “They use it like hot sauce in New Zealand.”
Larocque said they focused on Ethrel, a Bayer CropScience PGR, which contains ethephon. Ethrel is effective, plus it was easier to get, and cheaper than Cycocel at the time.
But barley growers should remember Ethrel isn’t registered for barley in Western Canada either. Both Cycocel Extra and Ethrel are temperature sensitive, Larocque cautioned. If the soil is dry and temperatures are hot when growers apply a PGR, they can see yield loss, he said.
Ethrel is difficult to scale to a commercial grain farm, he added, because it has to be applied at awn emergence. But it still produced good results in high temperatures, as long as there was good subsoil moisture, Larocque said. “You really have to keep an eye on your soil moisture.”
They applied Ethrel at 200 to 300 ml/acre. “Champion barley is a tall variety. And we shortened it one year by 10 inches,” said Larocque. That crop yielded 141 bushels per acre.
Larocque said each barley variety responds differently to PGRs. “Sometimes we were getting better nitrogen use efficiency outside of lodging.”
Larocque figured that shortening the plant forced energy and nutrients into the head. On average, they saw a “pretty decent” return on Ethrel, he added.
New Zealand barley growers also use PGRs to manage neck break. The PGR shortens the length between the head and flag leaf, stabilizing the head. Larocque said they saw the same effect in Alberta, but it needs more research.
Overall, Larocque was optimistic about the potential of PGRs. “As soon as they come into play, I think they’ll be a game-changer in Western Canada.”
Roll the credits
The Barley 180 project went beyond leaving a check strip or two. Just what does it take to run a project like Barley 180? Several agronomists and farmers, and a lot of financial support.
The Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund and the Alberta Barley Commission covered up to $110 per acre for input cots. Ty Faechner of Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) led the project. Co-operating agronomists included Steve Larocque of Beyond Agronomy, Craig Shand of Chinook Agronomy, Kelly Boles of Centerfield Solutions, and Darryl Chubb of DeNov Ag.
They also had a number of co-operating farmers in communities from Three Hills to Strathmore to Olds. They included Allen Jones, Spencer Hilton, Gordon Ellis, Ed Miller, Peter Stahl, Mike Reynolds, Grant Budgeon, and Kennett Farms.
Readers can view the Barley 180 presentation at www.cropsphere.com.