Organic cereal production

Organic standards now dictate that ruminant livestock must only be fed certified organic or in-conversion feed. Organic cereals and protein feeds can be difficult to source locally and prices are high. As a result, many producers are having to consider growing their own cereal and protein crops, and some may also be looking to produce crops for sale.

Cereal types

Whilst the traditional, spring barley and spring oats grown as general purpose livestock feed for cattle and sheep respectively still have their place, other cereals are worth considering.

Triticale, a wheat-rye cross suits marginal cereal land as well as more fertile ground, and is suitable for cattle, and can be used in pig and poultry rations.

Winter wheat is preferred for pigs and poultry, though beef and dairy producers may also be interested in feeding it. It could be a useful cash crop grown for sale.

Spring triticale could also be considered, but it is likely to ripen later, similar to spring wheat.

Site and soil

With tall varieties of spring oats and winter triticale avoid exposed, windy sites.

Tall varieties of spring barley and winter wheat are now rare.

Spring barley does not yield particularly well on thin light soils. Winter triticale would be a better bet in this situation.

Winter oats are tolerant of most soil types, but are more prone to lodging on rich soils.

Winter wheat tolerates richer, heavier soils than spring barley, but avoid waterlogged soils.

Position in rotation

Spring barley -best grown as a 1st cereal in a rotation. It could then be followed by spring oats or winter triticale.

Do not overdo the fertility inputs, or you risk serious weed problems and lodging.

Spring barley - can be grown as a 2nd cereal in a rotation but avoid following winter wheat.

Spring oats -are often grown as a 2nd cereal in a rotation, following winter wheat, winter triticale or spring barley.

will grow well as a 1st cereal after breaking a grass-clover sward, but don’t overdo the fertility inputs.

Winter triticale -suitable as a first cereal after a strong grass-clover sward, with little or no need for additional fertility. As a second cereal, some additional fertility may be beneficial, but a light application will be sufficient, or lodging may occur.

pH / liming

A general pH suitable for all cereals is 6.5.

Minimum pH requirements are barley (6.0), wheat (5.5), oats and triticale (5.0).

In all cases, there may be a need to increase the pH by liming for the following crop (not for potatoes).

Varieties

With all cereals a number of varieties will be on offer, though little may be known about the suitability of some of them for Northern Ireland or for organic production.

To suppress weeds, avoid shorter varieties of barley and wheat.
With spring oats, winter triticale and winter wheat, what you can get will depend initially on what is available in organic form.

A range of spring barley varieties are available in organic form – choose those suited to more northerly climates and soils and where Recommended lists show high untreated yields.

With spring oats, there is usually organic seed of several varieties available, with Firth usually not too difficult to obtain.

Several varieties of winter and spring triticale are on offer, though little may be known about their suitability for Northern Ireland or for organic production.

Winter varieties Lamberto and Bellac have been grown successfully locally, but information is limited.

Several varieties of winter wheat will be on offer, though little may be known about their suitability for Northern Ireland or for organic production.
The intended use of the winter wheat may also determine the best variety to grow.

Seed- aim to buy organic seed as derogations are increasingly difficult to obtain.

If non-organic seed is used under derogation always state that it should be untreated seed, and make sure it says this on the label. Retain seed labels for inspection.

Nutrition

Spring barley -grown after a good grass-clover sward, a light dressing of FYM or moderate cattle slurry will suffice.

As a second cereal, a moderate application of FYM or a light dressing of organic poultry manure will be sufficient.

Spring oats -grown after a good grass-clover sward, a light dressing of FYM or moderate cattle slurry will suffice. On rich ground, rely on the nutrients from the grass-clover sward alone.

As a second cereal, a moderate application of FYM or a light dressing of organic poultry manure is sufficient.

Winter triticale -grown after a good grass-clover sward, there may not be any need for any other source of nutrients.

As a second cereal, a moderate application of farmyard manure (FYM) or a light dressing of organic poultry manure may be required on lighter soils.
Winter wheat -grown after a good grass-clover sward, there may not be any need for any other source of nutrients.

As a second cereal, a moderate dressing of FYM or organic poultry manure may be beneficial, particularly on lighter soils. Avoid over-doing it so as to avoid lodging.

When to sow

Sowing dates will depend on local climate and ground conditions.

Spring barley -mid March – end of April, early March in very early areas.

Spring oats -mid March – end of April, early March in very early areas.

Winter triticale -late September – early November. If autumn sowing is impossible, some winter varieties can be sown in early spring, but strictly only up to the stated cut-off date (sometime in late winter) else they will not produce a head.

Winter wheat -mid September – November.

If autumn sowing is impossible due to weather, some varieties can be sown in early spring, but strictly only up to a cut-off date. They will give a lower yield than if sown at the optimal time in the autumn, and if sown too late they will not produce a head as they have not had the required cold period to trigger flowering.

Seed rate

  • spring barley-180 - 200 KG/ha
  • spring oats-200 – 225 KG/ha
  • winter triticale-180 -200 KG/ha
  • winter wheat-180 - 210 KG/ha – denser crops suppress weeds better, but may be more prone to lodging

Seedbed preparation

If after grass-clover, graze the sward right down with sheep, or top very low. You want to avoid grass-clover regrowth. Then plough to bury grass-clover and trash/weeds.

Spring barley, spring oats, winter triticale require a medium – fine seed bed.

For winter wheat a medium - rough seed bed to prevent capping in a mild wet winter is best.

Sowing depth

  • spring barley, spring oats and winter triticale - 30 mm
  • winter wheat - 25 mm, but up to 30mm on dryer soils

Rolling

  • spring barley -roll after sowing with a Cambridge or ring roller
  • spring oats -roll after sowing with a Cambridge or ring roller unless the soil is likely to form a hard cap or is likely to become waterlogged
  • winter triticale -consider rolling after sowing with a Cambridge or ring roller unless soil is likely to become waterlogged or cap
  • winter wheat -rolling not recommended as could cause crop damage through waterlogging

Weed control

Weeds are the big fear amongst organic cereals growers. Avoid fields known to have annual weed problems.

Weeds can be a serious problem in spring barley, particularly in a wet spring and early summer. If annual weeds do appear to be establishing use a spring tine weeder when the weeds are small (as long as the crop is well rooted).

This can only be carried out if ground conditions are suitable.

Whole cropping is an option if weeds are severe, but take advice as to whether the particular weeds are suitable for livestock to eat (Redshank generally is).

Spring oats -weeds are much less of a problem than in spring barley or winter wheat.

Along with its tall straw, oat roots give off chemicals which prevent weed seeds germinating. Avoid fields infested with wild spring oats.

Winter triticale -weeds are much less of a problem than in spring barley or winter wheat.

Straw is very tall and, like spring oats, there are suggestions that winter triticale roots give off chemicals which prevent weed seeds germinating.
Winter wheat -weeds are most likely to be a problem after a mild winter and in thin crops.

Winter wheat leaves are quite narrow over the winter and do not smother weeds particularly well. Avoid short varieties.

In all crops if annual weeds do appear to be establishing use a spring tine weeder when the weeds are small (as long as the crop is well rooted). This should only be carried out if ground conditions are suitable.

Regular crops of spring oats and winter triticale in the rotation can act as a cleaning crop to reduce the continued build up of strong weeds such as docks and dandelions in grassland.

They will not completely remove these weeds, but will suppress them enough so that they will not become a problem again for several years. At the same time other weed suppression methods such as regular topping and grazing with lambs should be used.

Pest and disease control

Powdery mildew only - sulphur is the only possible treatment (derogation needed).

Undersowing

As a second cereal, it can be valuable to under-sow spring barley with a grass-clover mix, though if the undersow grows into the top of the crop, combining can be difficult.

Dense weeds will probably kill an undersow.

As a second cereal, it can be valuable to under-sow spring oats with a grass-clover mix.

Due to tall straw, undersowing may not be successful with winter triticale.
A dense winter wheat crop may make undersowing less than successful.

Ripening

Spring barley is the first to ripen, with spring oats and winter triticale perhaps 1 – 2 weeks later. Winter wheat ripens several weeks later still.

Harvesting

There are a number of options:

  • in good years you should be able to combine and store dry, with grain drying if required
  • if you cannot easily get to the dry combining stage then crimping is an option, with a derogation for use of propionic acid (Propcorn)
  • ensiling the whole crop is an option at an earlier stage of ripeness

A moisture content of 14 percent or less is required for storage, hence there is a need for good ripening.

If weather forces combining when crop is not really ripe, consider crimping with a suitable crimping agent.

Check with your control body if a derogation is required for the stage of ripening and the agent you intend to use.

Alternativelydry the grain down to 14 percent moisture content for storage (derogation not needed).

Preservation of whole grain with propionic acid (Propcorn) is only allowed in exceptional circumstances, under strict derogation.

A moisture content of 14% or less is required for spring oats for human consumption, hence there is a need for good ripening.

In spring oats there is a risk of shedding if high winds occur at the time when the crop fully ripens or if wet weather delays harvest.

Uses

Spring barley is usually fed to cattle.

Spring oats are usually fed to sheep, but with good rolling are suitable for cattle.

Winter triticale is a good grain for general livestock feed. The foliage can be grazed during winter, but avoid over-grazing. It can also be whole-cropped.

Winter wheat is preferred by poultry and pig producers, though milk and beef producers might be interested.

Cereals and peas

With the loss of GM-free, conventional substitution options for protein feed, growing your own protein crops should be considered, but it is not easy to get a very high protein feed.

Peas can be grown along with spring barley to give a higher protein feed, particularly useful for sheep. However, the weed problems found with spring barley alone can still be a major problem, and spring tine weeding could remove the peas.

Peas can be grown along with spring oats to give a higher protein feed, particularly useful for sheep. Weeds are not generally a problem, similar to spring oats on their own.

It is difficult to sow the spring oats and peas together, two passes will be needed.

Sow peas at 50 mm depth and then sow the spring oats at 30 mm.

Only sow peas when ground and seedbed conditions are good. If the seedbed is very wet, the peas may rot rather than grow.

Suggested seed rates - Spring oats 125 Kg and peas 100 KG /ha.

Harvesting cereals and peas

  • in good years you should be able to combine and store dry, with grain drying if required
  • if you cannot easily get to the dry combining stage then crimping is an option and produces a very acceptable feed
  • ensiling the whole crop is an option at an earlier stage of ripeness

Spring triticale

Spring triticale may be slightly taller than winter varieties.

Its harvest date will probably be later than winter varieties.

A number of varieties are offered, but little is known about their potential under local conditions.

Some winter triticale varieties can be sown in the spring, but must be sown by the stated date as they require cold to make them flower, else they will not do so.

Spring wheat

Spring wheat is the latest cereal to ripen in Northern Ireland and can be difficult to harvest as the weather deteriorates.

Environmental issues

With winter cereals as a first cereal in the rotation, the stubble could be left over winter, with a spring cereal, other crop or a reseed sown in the spring.
This would provide a winter feeding area for birds and may attract payment under the Countryside Management Scheme. 

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