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Drill underpins success strategy for malting barley

Quality malting barley is synonymous with the prime farmland of Aberdeenshire, but the success of the crop is as much a testament to exceptional husbandry as it is due to the natural resources of the region.

This is certainly true in the case of Russell Mathers and his father Gordon, who through a combination of their own land, contract farming and contracting are responsible for up to 485ha of arable cropping, much of it spring barley achieving a malting premium.


Russell Mathers and his father Gordon consistently grown quality malting barley on their own farm and on additional contract-farmed land.
Farming from Meikle Endovie, Alford, Mr Mathers has developed a specialism in spring barley through attention to detail from seedbed preparation to crop nutrition. The placement of fertiliser in the seedbed at drilling is particularly important, and collaboration between machinery manufacturer, dealer and the local agricultural engineer has resulted in a machine that delivers the required precision without hampering work rates.

Before the drill can do its work, however, preparation of the seedbed and – equally importantly – the subsoil takes priority.

“We plough all of the spring barley land with a variable width plough and only use a press if we are ploughing later than February,” explains Mr Mathers.

“Spring barley is particularly susceptible to compaction, so we subsoil all of the headlands every year just before drilling using a flat lift implement. Frequency of subsoiling is otherwise dependent upon conditions. On the lighter land, subsoiling every third or fourth year in rotation is usually sufficient, but on the heavier land – or if we’ve had a particularly wet season – we may go in more often.”

Ideally, the ground is prepared with minimal passes to allow the four metre Kuhn power harrow and pneumatic drill combination to go straight in, but there is inherent flexibility in the system to allow further cultivations if required.

“It is easy to lift the coulter bars out of the soil to allow the power harrow to work independently if required, which means we can always achieve the optimum seedbed conditions even if the primary cultivations have left variable results,” adds Mr Mathers. “The drill itself is actually pretty robust with a double disc coulter arrangement giving it the capability to drill accurately in a wide range of conditions, but the ability to operate the power harrow without drilling is still useful at times.”

In its standard form, the Kuhn combination comprises a Venta pneumatic drill mounted on an HR power harrow, but the machine’s suitability for sowing spring barley has been enhanced with the addition of a front tank arrangement that allows compound fertiliser to be applied ‘down the spout’. The drill is mounted on a 167 horsepower New Holland T 7030 tractor and came about as a result of close collaboration between Kuhn, their dealer Ravenhill of Dyce and local agricultural engineer Murray Engineering.
The combination drill with front tank for fertiliser enables good work rates without compromising the quality of work.

“We are typically drilling at a seed rate of 215kg/ha and applying 250kg/ha of 8:24:24 NPK compound fertiliser between the drilling discs,” explains Mr Mathers. “We can achieve a forward speed of 10-12km/hr and with 1,800kg of fertiliser in the front tank and 1,300kg of seed in the rear hopper we can sow up to 5ha between fills.

“It’s a good work rate overall and there is no detriment to the quality of the job.”

Crop nutrition post drilling receives a comparable level of attention, with all fields being regularly soil sampled and mapped by the farm’s regular agronomist George Duncan. This enables fertiliser top dressings to be applied at variable rates with Kuhn’s Axis 40.1W twin disc spreader using GPS-technology. Even liming to correct soil pH is done with relative precision, using a pellet form for greater control.

Creation of a stale seedbed using glyphosate, as well as growing oats as a break crop, helps to keep agrochemicals to a minimum. Soil fertility may in future be enhanced with the use of red clover in the rotation, which would be grown to make silage for cattle kept on a ‘bed and breakfast’ basis in the farm’s sheds.

Yields from the popular malting variety Optic typically range between 5.5 to 6 tonnes/ha, with malting premiums commonly attained.

“We are looking for a good bushel weight and screenings down at 6 - 7% typically, and will usually achieve somewhere around 1.5 – 1.55% nitrogen,” concludes Mr Mathers. “Despite a difficult harvest this year, we have achieved our best every quality at 1.20% nitrogen and a maximum screenings of 7.3% off the combine.

“Malting barley isn’t the easiest crop to grow successfully, but with the required attention to detail we seem to be able to hit our targets most of the time.”

As printed in Farm Business Agronomist, Autumn Extra 2009


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KUHN FARM MACHINERY (UK) LTD STAFFORD PARK 7 GB TELFORD/SHROPS TF3 3BQ-Phone: 01952 / 239300-Fax: 01952 / 290091