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Published April 09, 2012, 10:01 AM

Barley bounces back

Sheyenne, N.D., farmer Mark Seastrand expects to plant roughly twice as many barley acres this spring as a year ago. A lot of other North Dakota farmers will be planting more barley, too, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture is right.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Sheyenne, N.D., farmer Mark Seastrand expects to plant roughly twice as many barley acres this spring as a year ago.

A lot of other North Dakota farmers will be planting more barley, too, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture is right. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated on March 30 that farmers in the state will plant 950,000 barley acres this year, up from only 400,000 acres in 2011 and 700,000 acres in 2010.

“No complaints from us” about the USDA projections, says Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council.

Last year, for the first time in recent memory, North Dakota fell from its top spot as the nation’s leading barley producer. Wet conditions that prevented Seastrand and other farmers in the state from planting contributed to last year’s acreage decline, but barley acres in the state have been trending lower because of competition from other more profitable crops and unfavorable weather. Barley fares best in dry, cool conditions, which the region’s long wet cycle has seldom provided in recent years.

Better prices this spring

Barley prices have risen in the past year, making the crop more attractive for Seastrand and other farmers to grow.

Barley can be sold as either malt or feed. Malt barley is used primarily for beer, while feed barley mainly is fed to animals. Many factors, including protein levels, determine whether barley is sold as malt or feed. Malt usually, though not always, fetches a higher price than feed.

Malt prices have risen about $1 per bushel in the past year at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek, while the price paid for feed barley has risen about 50 cents.

Barley yielded an average of 65 bushels per acre statewide in 2010 — county averages ranged from 42 to 85 bushels per acre — so $1 per bushel more would add another $40 to $85 per acre in gross profit to farmers who grow the crop.

The projected 2012 crop budget from the North Dakota State University Extension Service found barley to be one of the most profitable crops that many farmers in the state can grow this year.

Barley is grown across the state, but the crop is most common in north central and northwestern North Dakota.

It’s too soon to know if barley is back for good, Seastrand and others say.

Officials have said that at least 700,000 to 1 million acres of the crop is needed each year to maintain the state’s existing barley infrastructure. If USDA’s projection of 950,000 barley acres is right, farmers in the state will hit the needed target.

“Now we hope for a good crop,” Edwardson says of the outlook for the 2012 North Dakota barley crop.

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