Letter from NY:
Can we match Europe's small grain yields?
Klaas responds to a question about last month's column


December 17, 2003: Last month, Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens wrote about the work they’ve been doing with the consultants at Agricultural Consulting Services in Rochester, NY to determine the factors that enhance and suppress small grain yields in New York. They expressed the hope that they could eventually match the yields of farmers in Europe, which are often double those of producers in the U.S.

One of our readers, Ian Campbell, wrote to question that assumption. We thought it was worth sharing Ian’s question, and Klaas's response.

Hi Folks:

In a recent "New Farm" article, Mary pointed out that they were trying to find out how they could match European cereal yields. Not likely--the difference is in the LATITUDE!

Look at a map of Europe--most of France is north of the 45th parallel. Great Britain is at the same latitude as Hudson Bay!

This means longer hours of sunlight during the critical, cooler time of late Spring. We can see this here in the Province of Ontario, which stretches from the 42nd parallel north to the Arctic. While there isn't much agriculture in the more northerly reaches, government trials show dramatic increases in oats and barley yields as you move north. Oats often yield 150 bpa plus in the more northern areas.

Europe also has the advantage of a more moderate climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream. They can plant Spring cereals early (February/March) while we are still waiting for winter's end. Early seeding is probably more important to cereal productivity than any other factor.

I also question whether those big European wheat and barley crops are grown under organic management.

Ian Campbell

Klaas Marten responds:

We have heard similar responses to this idea here in New York, too. We believe we can reach much higher small grain yields than we do now because we have seen it happen occasionally on individual fields. Oats do yield 160 bpa or more occasionally in the USA. Our next door neighbor had a crop of 112 bu/acre of organically grown wheat two years ago. He used no fertilizer and can't tell us why it did so well that year. Fields that produce 140+ bu winter barley crops turn up every once in a while, too. The problem is that they don't occur regularly enough and we don't know what we did to make them happen. Nobody pays that close attention to their small grain management around here.

There may be something to the lattitude argument for some varieties, but all of our small grain species originated and were domesticated at much lower lattitudes than where we live. The same trend is true for corn yields within any given variety, providing that you still have a long enough growing season to mature it as you move it further north.

That is why we need to do more local and regional plant breeding. As we look at oat yields reported in university trials, we see that some varieties don't perform as well relative to plot averages when tested at southern locations as they do in the north. Conversely, the best yielding oat varieties in the south seldom do as well when tested in the north.

We are closely watching our grain's growth in a large number of different tests this year. There is no one single magic fertilizer, seed variety, or cultural practice that will instantly give us the higher yields we seek. But there are probably many little things that will each give us a small yield increase. When all used together, we hope that these improved management practices will increase our yields dramatically and consistently.

There is a lot we can learn from the Europeans about growing small grains. They have learned how to evaluate yield potential of grain crops much as we do with corn or soybeans. They know how deep they want to plant for each crop, what stand density they want, what fertility levels are optimum, even what degree of tillering is desired.

We have set up many trials on our farm using McGregor barley, a six row winter variety that has produced some 140+ bu yields even well south of here. Already, we can see large differences in growth from plot to plot. To improve our planting accuracy, we bought a Great Plains drill with double disc openers and depth wheels. We used a unit to dig up the wheel tracks and reduce the compaction behind the tractor wheels. Even with these measures we counted a 20% to 40% stand reduction in the wheel tracks. This difference can't be seen from a casual pickup truck window evaluation, you need to get out and count plants. How much yield will that cost us? We'll be checking that next summer. Many European farmers put the drill behind a harrow with a basket roller to avoid this stand loss. Even if it only makes a 2 or 3 bu/acre difference it could amount to an extra wagon load of grain from our farm next year.

Our no fertilizer plot looks very nice until you compare it with the other treatments. Just using 100# of dried pelleted poultry compost (5-5-3) per acre banded with the seed gave us about 10% more tillering. Where we applied a large amount (3 tons/acre) of poultry compost we got even heavier tillering. The big surprise was that in the highest fertility plot and with the highest rate of compost, the 100# of banded fertilizer still gave us a nice increase in tillering.

We'll let you know whether the big growth differences we see in the fields this fall will translate into yield differences next summer. Even if we see no yield differences at all, it won't mean that we can't improve our yields, it will just show that what we tried didn't work. We are sure to learn plenty of useful things from our experiments and will pass them on.