Barley growers trying ways of boosting yields

Steve Larocque has a number he uses to catch the attention of barley producers: 180.

Steve Larocque has a number he uses to catch the attention of barley producers: 180.

That’s 180, as in 180 bushels of barley to the acre.

In Alberta, where most farmers are happy to hit the 100-bushel mark, Larocque’s number might seems unbelievably high.

But the Three Hills agronomist is able to back it up with a story about test plots at Irricana that achieved 188 bushels.

“It’s been done, so I’m not talking smack,” he said. “I’m not chasing rainbows.”

It was those Irricana barley plots, where Westco Fertilizers Ltd. experimented with different inputs to boost yields, that inspired Larocque to launch his own Barley 180 project.

He wanted to hit 180-bushel per acre on a field scale, and described this goal in a newsletter that his company Beyond Agronomy publishes.

Other agonomists and farmers offered to participate, the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund and Alberta Barley Commission pledged funds, and the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta agreed to administer the trials.

Working with a half dozen malt and feed barley fields throughout Central Alberta, Larocque and his counterparts now have three years of results in the books. They’ve yet to hit the 180-bushel mark, but were as high as 156 bushels on a field near Crossfield and have consistently out-produced adjacent control plots.

“I think we’re averaging probably a 17 per cent increase on yields on average,” said Larocque.

Their research has focused on three inputs: nitrogen, growth regulators and fungicides.

In the case of the nitrogen, high levels of the fertilizer have been applied at seeding and later as a top-dress. Larocque said higher-than-expected volumes of nitrogen have proven necessary to really boost yields.

“It might take 1.5 pounds of nitrogen for one bushel of barley up until 115 or 120 bushels an acre. But from 120 to 180, you might need an extra two pounds of nitrogen, or 2 1/2 pounds of nitrogen, to produce the same bushel.”

The researchers also found that the growth regulator Ethrel thickens plants’ stem walls, allowing them to support heavier heads. Crop lodging, explained Larocque, is “enemy number 1” with high nitrogen levels and plant densities.

Finally, a late application of fungicides helped keep the crops green longer, so they could utilize the extra nitrogen.

The three inputs together produced greater benefits than could be achieved by applying them individually, said Larocque.

“That’s the problem with researching single inputs.

“It’s the combination of all of them together that makes them work really well.”

Ironically, Barley 180’s best results came in the first year. Larocque explained that growing conditions were very good in 2011, whereas 2012 was dry and 2013 had excess precipitation.

“Had we known what we know now in 2011, I bet you we could have hit 180.

“The first year, we just kind of threw everything at it.”

Larocque, who has been working with Craig Shand of Farmers Edge and Kelly Boles of Center Field Solutions on Barley 180, plans to continue the project. This will include fine-tuning input levels to find the optimal balance between cost and yield.

“We are keeping track of the economics of it, and just trying to figure out what does give us our biggest bang for the buck.”

Larocque and his counterparts have also embarked on a new project: Wheat 150. Experimenting with similar inputs to those used in Barley 180, they hope to produce hard red spring wheat yields of 150 bushels an acre.

“The same principles apply,” said Larocque.