On-farm trials at Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland (2020–2026)


Host farmer: David Aglen

Location: Balbirnie Home Farms, Fife

Duration: 2020–2026

AHDB Strategic Cereal Farms put cutting-edge research and innovation into practice on commercial farms around the UK. Each farm hosts field-scale and farm-scale demonstrations, with experiences shared via on-farm and online events to the wider farming community.

Strategic Cereal Farms

Reducing artificial inputs is a long-term goal for Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland.

This page features a summary of information published in the latest annual report.

Cover crops ahead of direct drilled spring barley (work packages 1 and 2)

This work aims to quantify the benefits of establishing a cover crop prior to direct drilling spring barley, and to see whether benefits translate into opportunities to reduce inputs in the cash crop.

Headline results (harvest 2023)

  • As with the 2022 trials, sow date was a more significant driver of spring barley yield than cover crop
  • All three sow dates were in April in 2023, which was later than in 2022 (because of the wet March in 2023)
  • Autumn-established cover crop survival differed markedly between the two fields. In one it had largely disappeared by the spring. In the other, it remained so vigorous that it was hard to control, which negatively affected spring barley establishment
  • One of the two spring barley crops ultimately failed due to a combination of difficulties in establishment and slug damage where cover crops were still well established at drilling
  • There was a small yield advantage to the inclusion of cover crop for the first two sow dates in the surviving field
  • However, a trend that retaining the cover crop until after drilling reduced yield in the later drilled plots was observed for a second season
  • Retaining cover crops gave a trend to improve soil health and raise organic matter levels

Action points

  • Cover crops may help with water retention and soil health
  • Drill date is a key driver of yield
  • Crop establishment might be reduced by direct drilling into a cover crop

Optimising crop nutrition (work packages 3 and 4)

This work aims to determine whether amending crop nutrition in response to live crop monitoring, including growth and development and tissue testing, will have an economic benefit on crop health, yield and grain quality. The work will also indicate how changes in nitrogen management impact on resource use efficiency of the crop.

Optimising nitrogen application (work package 3)

This work package modified the nitrogen (N) trial in 2021–22 by comparing two methods for applying foliar nitrogen compared to an industry standard application of ammonium nitrate.

Headline results (harvest 2023)

  • In contrast to the previous season, one of the foliar N treatments used a 30 kg/ha reduction in total N but added trace elements, compared to the standard treatment of 160 kg/ha
  • To date, yield and grain quality are not available and the report includes key crop measures such as green area index (GAI) and leaf chlorophyll (SPAD) estimates. These have become routine to our seasonal crop monitoring and informing changes in management. We continue to use a new measure of the crop N pool, as the product of GAI x SPAD
  • The value of BRIX measurements remains uncertain, but we continue to test how this measurement relates to crop health and nutritional status, as well understanding how spatial and temporal change in BRIX matches with other crop measurements
  • When yield data and Farmbench data are available, we will report on production, economics and efficiency of the different N treatments, and quantify differences in N fertilisation efficiency between standard granular N and foliar N
  • The crop measurements in this WP were common to those in the crop nutrition trial (work package 4).

Action points

  • The use GAI and SPAD and an estimate of crop N pool as a composite indicator of crop potential looks promising as a guide to N management, as first reported in the 2021–22 trial
  • Further yield and grain quality data from harvest 2023 will inform on the value of this composite measure in yield forecasting and a tool in N management
  • The benefit of crop measures, including GAI, SPAD and BRIX continue to be quantified towards use of a combined tool, and eventually a remote sensing technology, that can be uses to report on crop health and yield potential
  • As reported in 2021–22, when planning for crop measurement and sampling we considered how measurement zones were representative of the full tramline length or whole field
  • With the addition of yield maps, in conjunction with representative sampling zones, we aim to identify permanent and temporary field features, such as seasonal variation in soil moisture, that may require different management to crop and/or soil

Adjusting nutrition application in response to crop monitoring  (work package 4)

This work package repeated the trial of 2021–22 by investigating four ways to manage nutrients, including a current farm standard and two tailored treatments.

Headline results (harvest 2023)

  • Working closely with work package 3, the nutrient trial used crop measures, such as leaf area index (GAI) and leaf chlorophyll (SPAD), as a guide to adjusting nutrition, coupled with leaf sap and tissue nutrient testing
  • This work provides further support for the use of crop nitrogen (N) pool, as the product of GAI x SPAD in assessing field variation in crop yield potential and has become a key measure towards forecasting grain yield and quality
  • The value of BRIX measurements was further investigated. Its potential to assess changes in crop disease levels and nutritional health, as well spatial and temporal variation in yield, is yet to be confirmed
  • When crop yield and Farmbench data are available, we will report the full production, economic and efficiency of the different approaches to nutrient management
  • The measurements in this work were common to the crop nitrogen trial (work package 3).

Action points

  • Work packages 3 and 4 support the use of GAI, SPAD and crop N pool as a guide to crop management
  • Use of the same crop measures in both work packages has assisted our project towards improved protocols for benchmarking the health of crops
  • Although relationships between SPAD and BRIX and crop disease or nutrient status have yet to be established, we expect that a full analysis with Farmbench data to provide the most up-to-date evaluation of these methods, as well as forming a key part of our approach towards real-time crop management
  • In both work packages, the value of crop measures, including GAI, SPAD and BRIX is being quantified to enable combined methods and technologies to inform better on crop health and nutrient status
  • If validated, these measures can be adapted for use in remote crop sensing and provide a wider opportunity for assessing spatial and temporal change in crop health and nutrient status
Cereals & Oilseeds
Project code:
01 September 2020 - 31 August 2026


Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland annual report (harvest 2023) Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland annual report (harvest 2022) Strategic Cereal Farm Scotland annual report (harvest 2021)