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Lofty Heights
By Grace O'Reilly
July 27, 2021 | ELEMENT: barley | editorial | 10 minute read

A school book sowing period gave the majority of Waterford growers a solid foundation for the Harvest 2021. The mild but wet winter hexed any chance of the early February sowing dates which we’ve seen rise to over the years. That said, the historical sowing date closer to St Patricks Day has insured a lot of exceptional barley so far.

With fortnightly spells of good weather from early March onwards, crops emerged fast and strong. But when the cold weather continued, the juvenile barley plants stuck to the ground, with growth remaining at a standstill until the soil and air temperatures increased again in mid-April. Growth had steadied when the much thought of wet and windy May arrived giving us a shaggy carpet of dense green with all the promising hopes of filling the barns of straw and hay as the old saying goes.

While drought was biting for the most parts of June, fortunately the moisture stress situation stabilized when rain graced all parts of the country over a 48hr period. Long days either side of the mid-summer solstice increased the pace of growth leading to significant elongation of barley plants. These taller than average spring crops are at their peak height and with grain weight increasing during the important 40 days of grain fill, stem standing power will be put to the test with or without the pre harvest extremities of weather we’ve experienced last year.

Any compensation, in terms of growth stages and calendar year is practically over once the ear emerges from the leaf sheath. The stress we have noticed on the older leaves from the cold spring reveals yellowing symptoms causing lack of growth and some element deficiencies. With an array of ten varieties this year at Waterford Distillery,  the cold dry spring across western Europe tests the climate resilience of these modern and heritage varieties.

Waterford Distillery growers steered some caution with reports of “OKAY looking crops” while others feared the soft, lush, dense canopies that appeared when temperatures began to rise. Soft fruit growers tell of the initial shortage of strawberries this season ending with a bang when the weather suddenly improvement and a huge flush of strawberries was seen throughout Ireland and Europe. These intermittent intense sun bursts, combined with dry winds and little to absent early morning dews, might force an accelerated grain filling period causing burn-in before our wonderful flavour stashed grain meets optimum potential.

Most autumn and spring sown crops are in the senescence phase where the green area of the plant declines as leaves senesce from the base. This is the redistribution phase within the plant physiology, as nitrogen is moved from the foliage to the grain and water-soluble carbohydrate from the stem to the grain. The requirement for nitrogen is low in the canopy at this stage and any excess uptake of nitrogen from the soil could lead to increased grain protein content. Winter barley is still showing signs of life within canopies but the sight of golden fields now border our country roadsides. Heavy rain in the first few days of July has caused some premature lodging of straw at headlands attracting some unwanted crows. Prepare to see fewer bales of straw this harvest as many growers are now chopping large quantities of straw under a new environmental measure. Resulting in some of the nutrients which were taken away by the plant being incorporated back into the soil whilst increase in soil organic matter levels over time. With dense canopies of tall crops it’s a case of height for hire.

Our dynasty of outliers with later sown crops; some organic, some biodynamic and some growing in challenging regions have seen issues of compaction, yellowing, stunted growth and crow damage this year. Every case is different with multiple factors like local temperatures, soil composition, workload and tiller emergence having an effect.

Approaching our 7th harvest we’ve experienced many seasons that did not looked as hopeful as 2021. Our growers have never let us down in the task of fulfilling our production requirements and quantities of 100% Irish barley. The weather forecast arms growers for what mother nature and the four seasons might bring, knowing it can be an arduous relationship if one falls short!

Speaking with ​Met Éireann meteorologist and weather forecaster, Gerry Murphy, he explains that the atmosphere is a fluid, which is constantly moving and constantly changing. Predicting its evolution and motion is complex ​and always contains uncertainties. ​The further into the future you look, the more uncertain the forecast will be. Met Eireann predicts the weather up to 10 days ahead using Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models. For short range forecasts up to 2 days, a high-resolution model (HARMONIE) is run by Met Eireann for accurate forecasts for Ireland. For forecasts from 3 to 10 days ahead, the forecasting model of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) is used. Depending on the model, the NWP forecast is run every 3 or every 6 hours with a new set of ​weather observations and consequently, a new set of initial conditions. The weather story is constantly evolving ​with each model run and sometimes the forecast can change significantly over time. The weather forecast is accurate the vast majority of the time however, sometimes the weather we get is not what is expected. Likewise with each harvest we see a new array of complexities to our spirits that we did not forecast, coined by the micro climate, soil, plant and topography in question.

With that in mind we have great hopes for Harvest 2021 as its been steady, as she goes so far. Growers, like us all have begun to overlook what is going on elsewhere in the world and focused on what we have control of which has certainly increased the grá to grow the most flavour filled barley to be seen – or maybe it’s all the free whisky I’ve been parting with!

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