Leading barley producer innovates & improves

Quality beer needs quality barley and there’s not enough of it in
South Africa. RD Erasmus, well-known Western Cape barley producer,
spoke to Jacques Claassen about how he has optimised his farming practices and geared his production towards improving quality and yield.

Leading barley producer innovates & improves

Barley producer RD Erasmus has increased his average barley yield from 3,5t/ ha to 4,1t/ha during the past five years. He attributes this 17% increase to the release of new, improved cultivars. RD a fifth-generation farmer and chairperson of the National and Dryland Barley specialist working group left agricultural college early to help his father, a diabetic who had lost his sight. After his father’s death in 1999, RD took over the family farm Fonteinskloof.

Today he plants winter grain cash crops on three farms in the Overberg; Fonteinskloof and Oude Bakoven in the Caledon district and Alexanderkloof in the Riviersonderend district. The other two properties are leased. The average annual rainfall on the three farms varies between 400mm and 500mm/annum. RD plants Sabbi Erica, Sabbi Nemesia and S6, barley cultivars bred at the SA Barley Breeding Institute by Francois Potgieter and his team. “Sustainability and progress in the malt industry depends to a large extent on the pioneering work of this team,” says RD.

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Although the cultivars are more stable and less prone to climate risk, their grain quality has been increased substantially, according to RD. The higher the plump kernel percentage, the better the malt extraction for the production of quality beer. Barley kernels with a diameter greater than 2,5mm are regarded as ‘plump’ kernels. These should have a nitrogen content of between 1,5% and 2%, but for the best malt and beer this figure should be between 1,75% and 1,85%.

RD Erasmus with a GPS map he created. He uses these maps to calculate varying fertiliser needs after he has tested the soil. Photo courtesy of RD Erasmus

These are tricky parameters for a producer striving to increase the plump kernel percentage of each batch of barley, and it is therefore important to optimise farming practices, including weed, disease and pest control as well as fertiliser application. RD’s other practices include:

  • A no-till system to improve soil structure and ensure that lands are not exposed to unexpected dry spells during the normally wet Cape winter.
  • Precision soil analysis done on a hectare grid on every land every second year, which enables him to adjust soil pH with an application of calcitic agricultural lime and to vary phosphate application as required.

Rye grass poses the main weed problem in the Overberg, although brome becomes more dominant when rye grass is under control. Depending on the distribution of summer rainfall, RD uses glyphosate to control weeds. Just hours before sowing – a six-week period which starts after the first winter rain in April – he sprays Paraquat for better germination. Alternating these two active ingredients is also an effective way of preventing weed resistance.

An incorporated-by-sowing (IBS) application of Trifluralin is used to inhibit grass seed germination. RD then applies 1,5 l/ ha Trifluralin and 200ml/ ha Metribuzin just ahead of the seed. With wheat he follows an IBS application of 1l/ ha Trifluralin and 3l/ ha Avadex, a product which is not registered for use on barley in South Africa. RD follows sowing with a post-emergence grass and broad-leaf weed control programme. Weed control is a priority for a barley producer in the first 14 to 21 days after sowing.

As the season progresses, the emphasis falls more on disease control, as barley is more disease-prone than wheat.
RD starts with a spraying schedule eight weeks after sowing to control leaf rust, powdery mildew, leaf blotch and net blotch, spraying once a month until flowering. To control aphids, he combines an insecticide application with a fungicide application as the need arises. In compliance with registration, he uses a combination of Triazoles and Strobilurin on wheat and barley.

The planter contains a tank for seed, two tanks for fertiliser and a water tank. Seed and fertiliser are placed as close together as possible about 15mm below the soil surface. Photo by Jacques Classen

Fertiliser applications
RD sows barley at a rate of 85kg to 90kg/ha, preferring to use separate applications of nitrogen (N) and phosphate (P) instead of a mixture. Based on the soil analysis, he draws up an application chart that allows him to apply 15kg P/ ha to 25kg P/ha with the use of GPS technology. When Farmer’s Weekly visited him, he was planning to trial a variety of N applications (70kg/ ha to 130kg/ha) for the first time. The trials are intended to run on 100ha based on point specific soil classifications and analyses.

By incorporating the analyses with historic yield maps, he determines point-specific yield potential for a land. After creating maps, he varies the N applications accordingly. During sowing he applies the following:

  • 30kg N/ha (standard practice on wheat, canola and lupins).
  • AmiPlus and 6kg/ ha sulphur.
  • Mono ammonium phosphate (MAP) with 30g/ ha copper and 40g/ha zinc.

AmiPlus, a granulated urea treated with the urease inhibitor Agrotain, makes more N available to the plant and ensures that the N does not volatilise and burn seed when it is released. The sulphur addresses any deficiency of the element in the soil. Until last year, RD used superphosphate instead of MAP. His decision to switch was driven by economics: MAP contains a higher concentration of P per volume, so he requires half the previous volume. According to him, there will be no influence on the yield.

RD says that most farmers place fertiliser somewhat deeper than the seed during sowing. “But I obtain better results if I place seed and fertiliser as close as possible. That’s another reason why I chose a fertiliser like AmiPlus that does not burn the seed.” His planter places the seed about 15mm below the soil surface. Three weeks after sowing, he top-dresses with an application of 60kgN/ ha on the barley lands.

Income streams
RD uses 70% of his available land for crops and 30% for livestock. To ensure good returns, he uses high potential soils for cash crop production, and sets low potential areas aside for small stock (Dohne Merinos and Dormers). This helps to bring stability to his enterprise. Wheat constitutes the bulk (40% to 50%) of his crop production, followed by Barley (25% to 30%), with canola and lupins making up the remainder. RD has divided his lands into the following since 2000:

  • ‘A’ lands for continuous crop farming (wheat, barley, canola and lupins);
  • ‘B’ lands in a short grazing rotation (one year wheat and one year legume pastures).
  • ‘C’ lands with a longer rotation – six years’ lucerne and six years’ winter grain (wheat, barley and canola).

Cost structures
Thanks to exceptionally favourable production conditions during 2012, RD achieved the following average yields: 5,4t/ha wheat, 4,8t/ha barley and 2,4t/ha canola. Direct input costs for wheat and barley are more or less the same at about R5 500/ ha. RD told Farmer’s Weekly that, based on 1 May prices (net producer wheat price of R2 700/t in the Western Cape), he would be able to break even with a yield of 2,1t/ha to 2,2t/ha.