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Cereals In Practice
by Andrew Arbuckle
Drought in some of the main grain growing countries of the world such as Russia and the United States along with a reduced acreage of cereals having been planted has given a slight boost to grain prices, which have been in the doldrums for the last two years.
Many of the 200 or so farmers, crop consultants and advisors who visited this year’s Cereals in Practice event, organised jointly by the
Scottish Crop Research Institute and the Scottish Agricultural College, on the outskirts of Dundee, reflected that slight improvement in optimism.
Aiding the upbeat mood is the fact that this year, their crops are coming through with lower costs of production. Mark Ballingall, crop
consultant with the SAC said disease levels in all cereals were extremely low this year and as a result there had, so far, less spraying being carried out.
He did however, say that he was finding more crops infested with sterile brome and there were localised patches of blackgrass in some crops in the Borders and up into Fife. Both these weeds are widespread in the grain growing areas of England but have not yet been of economic
significance north of the border.
While most specialist cereal growers will know what to look for with these two infiltrators, he worried that some growers might not recognise
them and this could lead to the weeds becoming established in an area.
Ballingall attributed some of the increase in brome to the increasingly popular practice of sowing after minimum tillage, which leaves the trash on the surface of the soil.
“I would recommend that at least one year in every three or four conventional ploughing takes place as this seems to get rid of any problem with brome.”
He added that there were two schools of thought on the increased sightings of these two grass type weeds in cereals crops. The first was
that they were coming in with contaminated seed and the second is that they are indigenous anyway.
He recommended growers identifying blackgrass in their crops to use spot spray treatment.
Spring barley growers are also having to cope with increased areas of annual meadow grass. Even if it does not directly compete with the grain, it can have the unfortunate consequence of both slowing down harvesting and also increasing moisture levels in the grain. At harvest time, the green grass holds moisture thus delaying the daily start of combining and then when the grass weed is mixed through the combine with the crop, it can add one or two percent to the moisture of the sample, he stated.
Dealing with the meadow grass problem is not easy as many of the chemicals that were previously used are now off the market. The problem
is aggravated with many of those left requiring damp conditions to ensure the residual action works.
“That is difficult when you get a dry spring such as the one we have just had,” he stated.
Barley growers may also not be fully aware of the scale of ranularia infection as the leaf spot symptoms can be quite similar to other diseases, according to Simon Oxley, a crop consultant colleague of Mark Ballingall at SAC.
More than a decade has passed since the disease was first identified as having economic importance in this country. Since then it has become one of the main diseases to show up whenever a crop is under stress. In order that growers can get to grips with the disease, which can be
controlled through either choosing varieties, which have a resistance to the disease of through using a fungicide, a booklet has been put
Oxley said the information and the photographs within the document would help growers identify the problem and also let them know how best it could be treated.
Taking a much longer view of the cereal industry, Professor Claire Halpin from the Life Sciences department of the University of Dundee, said there was great potential in producing the second generation of biofuels from grain crops.
She accepted that the public perception of this source of energy was not as good as it might be with many people objecting to using large
acreages of crops such as maize being used for fuel at a time when there are so many hungry people in the world.
However, she and the rest of the large multi disciplinary research team who are now looking at bringing forward new sources of fuel were
investigating the straw from the cereal crop, which is of low non food value, especially when it comes from winter wheat crops.
The fuel from straw was not, as many initially thought, coming from burning the straw but from breaking down the plant into sugar or starch.
She admitted that it was much more difficult to do but believed that it should be possible to achieve this aim within the next five to ten years.
While she is concentrating on the plant side, other specialists in the research team are concentrating on different aspects of the work.
The critical part as far as the plant was concerned was in reducing the level of lignin in the straw. This is the ‘glue’ that holds the plant upright and she has already identified varieties which carry vastly differing levels of lignin in their genetic makeup.
“This work does not affect the yield of grain but it should provide other marketing options for the cereal crop.”
Another large team of breeders and geneticists, including a number from scientists from SCRI, are now working through more than 1,000 barley varieties to find out differences in their genetic make up.
The aim is to produce new high quality varieties, which are vital to the £4 billion Scottish whisky industry and to the wider malting, brewing
and distilling sectors, which last year were reckoned to be worth some £20 billion to the UK’s economy.
Through looking at the barley genome, Professor Robbie Waugh, project leader at SCRI said “We have gained a much better understanding of what combinations of genes are required to make a good barley variety
He added that with the information the scientists had discovered, they were now working with plant breeders to improve important
characteristics such as yield and resistance to pests and diseases.