They didn’t reach their goal, but researchers in the Barley 180 project came pretty close.
“We just said, ‘OK, let’s see if we can hit 180 (bushels per acre).’ And we hit 156,” said Steve Larocque of Beyond Agronomy, an agronomic services company in Three Hills, Alta.
Alberta’s Agricultural Research and Extension Council has been running barley trials on four locations since 2011.
“We saw 15 to 20 per cent yield increases with the work we’re doing with inputs,” Larocque said at a recent Alberta Barley Commission regional meeting.
“Plant growth regulators, nitrogen rates and fungicides are the three things that we’re focusing on now that will probably give us the biggest bang for our buck.”
Plant growth regulators
Larocque’s primary focus was on plant growth regulators (PGRs).
“You already hear a lot about them,” Larocque said. “Well, you’re going to hear even more about them and the opportunities that they bring, especially with barley.
“It’s not a guaranteed recipe for no lodging, but we’re really encouraged by PGRs and their ability to shorten the crop and keep it standing.”
Larocque tested two products — Ethrel and Cycocel. Both regulate hormones in the plants, helping them grow fatter instead of taller, but Larocque will be using Ethrel going forward, even though it’s tricky to use.
“The finicky part about Ethrel is it has to be applied when the awns are just starting to emerge. Not later, not before.”
That’s not a big issue in a trial, but applying it on a large scale is a different story.
“The difference between awns emerging and awns emerged under the right conditions is maybe a couple of days,” said Larocque. “How do you take a product that’s so finicky at timing and scale that out to 800 or 1,500 acres? It’s doable, but risky.
“PGRs are what we call a ticking time bomb. If used improperly, you can hurt yield.”
Larocque said he had to sign a waiver before using the two products, but the results are promising. At the trial at Crossfield in 2011, he saw a yield increase from 133 bushels per acre to 156, with a five bu./ac. increase in 2012 and an eight bu./ac. increase in 2013.
“There’s really good promise in it,” Larocque said. “I’m not going to say there’s no risk involved, but it’s something we need to figure out how to use going forward.”
Split nitrogen applications
The results of split applications of nitrogen have been less definitive.
“We thought we’d go with a split application of nitrogen because we didn’t want so much up front,” said Larocque, who applied 100 pounds initially with another 60 to 70 applied later as a top dress.
“But what we’re finding is a tremendous amount of variability in response from top-dressed nitrogen in barley,” he said.
At the Morrin site, heavy rains following application in every year except 2012 resulted in a 20-bushel-per-acre response. But at Crossfield, the same methods only added one more bushel per acre.
“You can really knock it out of the park one year, but in another area, with another variety, even if your timing’s perfect, it’s still not responding,” said Larocque. “Split applications do work, but streaming it on like we have been, it’s far too variable to count on.”
Fungicides play “an absolutely crucial role” in the whole package, said Larocque.
“Yes, they help control disease, but the right fungicides can actually keep the plants greener longer so they’re able to utilize that additional nitrogen.”
In 2013 at Crossfield, there was a yield increase from 108 bu./ac. to 116 bu./ac. with the PGR alone and to 123 bu./ac. with the fungicide alone. When combined, the yield increased to 126 bushels per acre.
“We bumped it up an additional three bushels by combining the three,” said Larocque, adding the average yield in the area is around 80 bushels per acre.
And while the project didn’t achieve its lofty target, it showed major yield increases are possible, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not realistic to go for 180 across the farm,” said Larocque. “But maybe it is realistic to go for 120 or 130. That 180 target is going to happen once in a while, but 130 I think we can do.”