New spring barley genetics unlock future market potential

UK-grown spring barley has significant potential for market growth in the years ahead with new varieties underpinning marked productivity lifts and environmental benefits, industry commentators believe.

New spring barley genetics will offer growers a chance to drive down carbon footprint of production and improve long-term sustainability whilst delivering better quality to trade and consumers alike, says Independent Soil and Carbon Specialist Neil Fuller.

"Spring barley has so much going for it now and in the years ahead and the potential can only grow."

"For a start, there's the opportunity to use cover crops to boost the organic matter of land and improve soil structure, achieve better weed control with reduced use of herbicides and benefit from higher levels of N-efficiency than with many other crops."

"Ongoing improvements in resistance to diseases and abiotic stress also mean less inputs are required giving growers a far greater chance of achieving sustainability objectives and restoring the optimum soil carbon balance."

"In addition, greater yield potential allows the carbon burden carried by each tonne of grain to be diluted and the CO2 output per calorie of energy produced to be significantly reduced."

In terms of malting barley, such integrated production and management gains are to the benefit of grower, processor and end-consumer, he believes.

"At the moment, typically 30% of the carbon footprint of beer, for example, comes from that associated with the production of the grain."

"Halving the carbon footprint of the crop production process by 2030, in line with SBTI guidelines, will result in the grain being responsible for just 10% of the carbon produced in beer production and when we get to net zero it will contribute nothing."

"Better crop genetics are absolutely essential in delivering this with new varieties critical to unlocking the sustainability equation."

"Good variety plus good agronomy equals good carbon outcome and major wins throughout the food supply chain from grower to consumer."

New varieties urgently needed

Mark Ineson, Grain Supply Chain Manager at Malsters Muntons PLC and Chairman of the UK Malting Barley Committee (MBC), agrees saying new spring barley varieties are urgently required to fully unlock the future potential of the crop.

"The UK malting market has stayed relatively static at 1.8 to 1.9 million tonnes for some time and this produces about 1.5 million tonnes of malt per year."

"Historically, it takes 30 to 40 years to get payback on new malting facilities but there is now new investment going into the industry."

"High demand from the distilling sector in particular, means new higher Nitrogen varieties will be needed to satisfy this."

"One of the biggest worries we currently have is the market's reliance on the variety Laureate which accounts for nearly 60% of all malting barley produced in Scotland. Laureate was 35% of all drillings for harvest 2022."

"It's a high-risk situation and it would only take a breakdown in something like disease resistance to severely affect the whole of the UK's malting barley production. We urgently need new varieties to address this."

Significant market potential

An excellent candidate to take up the challenge looks to be KWS Curtis and this is currently entering MBC evaluation and commercial distilling trials, he says.

"KWS Curtis looks good and it certainly ticks all the boxes on paper and in the trials we have seen so far."

"It's a new variety so we're just starting the journey with it, but early indications are it could be less susceptible to diseases like Rynchosporium rusts than Laureate and we expect it to be a strong yielder."

"Plus, by the time KWS Curtis hits big market share, Laureate will have been around for ten years, which is where varieties start to tail off, and there is no other variety in the availability position of Curtis."

Adam Christie, Managing Director of Scottish Agronomy, has experience of growing KWS Curtis and believes it has the potential to be what the industry has been waiting for.

"Its yield levels are very exciting for a start plus it's got a very robust agronomic package with superb stiff straw which will be a major bonus for Scotland where much of it is likely to be grown due to the demand from distillers."

"The fact that it has a strong disease resistance package, especially when it comes to Rhynchosporium, is important too as Scottish barley growers increasingly use just one fungicide at T2 and that's it."

Economically, KWS Curtis would stack up well against continuous wheat as shown in Scottish Agronomy's own crop production analysis, he says.

"We're looking at a gross margin of £559/ha for continuous wheat and £865/ha for malting spring barley so the precedent is there for growers to get very good returns from KWS Curtis."

Dr. Kirsty Richards of KWS stresses KWS Curtis is a genuine dual-purpose variety with grower benefits matched by those achieved in brewing and distilling processes.

“KWS and AHDB trials have shown KWS Curtis’ combination of higher field yield and spirit yield means every 1000 litres of alcohol results in 120kg less CO2 being produced than with the variety Laureate.

“In brewing, KWS Curtis had a CO2 output 10% less RGT Planet for the same Hot Water Extract (HWE).

“This means KWS Curtis offers significant potential across the board from higher yields and quality for growers to higher alcohol yields from every tonne of grain for distillers and lower CO2 production to help mitigate against climate change."

Performing in the field

KWS Curtis' resilience and performance has been tested in a variety of growing conditions across Europe with the variety having an agronomic profile perfectly suited to the UK, she adds.

“It’s a variety that performs well across the country with treated yields in the 2023/24 RL of 105% of controls in the East and 103% in the North and West regions with an average yield of 104% for the UK as a whole.

“These yields have been remarkably consistent over the last three years of trials despite very different spring seasons. Untreated yield is very high at 93%, too, giving growers a range of production options.

“It gets an exceptional 9 for mildew resistance and a 7 for Rhynchosporium whilst its 4 for brown rust is comparable with established market leaders.

“KWS Curtis has been bred to be a very safe bet for growers in terms of field performance as well.

“A score of 8 for lodging resistance without PGRs is the best in its class and compares very favourably to the 6s achieved by the many commercialised varieties in the malting sector whilst its 9 for resistance to brackling is further strengthened by a short height of 69cms.”

Strong pipeline

According to KWS's Spring Barley Breeder Dr. Henry Barber, the company sees development of the crop as a key future objective with a pan-European initiative focusing on yield potential and stability, resistance to diseases and enhanced quality characteristics.

"Pre-breeding and genomics are helping this process considerably and shortening the time taken from the first crosses being made to varieties ready to go into commercial production.

"KWS Premis and KWS Nelis are already following in the path of KWS Curtis being high performance spring barleys with significant production and environmental potential.

“Both varieties are currently progressing through the MBC testing system with KWS Premis being evaluated for brewing only and KWS Nelis as a dual-purpose variety.

“Both have very similar yields, quality potential and agronomic properties to KWS Curtis alongside its proven consistency across different growing seasons and regions of the UK.

“KWS Premis and KWS Nelis are now entering AHDB candidate trials for harvest 2023 and we have high hopes of them, too.”

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