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Published July 23, 2012, 10:30 AM

No magic

Barley was a commodity, but now is a specialty crop

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Growing malt barley isn’t magic.

That’s the message malting and brewing industry officials received from the Institute of Barley and Malt Sciences, which hosted a North Dakota Barley Harvest Tour July 16 to 18. About 30 people attended the event from a range of backgrounds — malt companies, specialty grain companies, micro-brewers and farmers from the region and into Canada.

The group toured North Dakota State University testing and breeding research facilities, including a new $33 million greenhouse complex, plots at Casselton, N.D., the behemoth Cargill malting plant at Spiritwood, N.D., and an elevator at Sutton, N.D., as well as farm visits. Attendees saw a poor barley crop, suffering in places from hot, dry conditions.

“We want the industry to see some of the challenges we face, out here trying to produce quality malt barley,” said Doyle Lentz, a member of the North Dakota Barley Council and a farmer from Rolla, N.D. “It’s not throw the seed into the ground, hope it grows, and get quality malt barley. There are a lot of things that go with it from research to the combine at the end.”

Rich Horsley, NDSU’s barley breeder, spoke on the topic. “Anything that looks easy is hard to do right — this includes production of malting barley.” Horsley said the key to interpreting impacts of stress on barley yield and quality is understanding barley growth stages.

Horsley said the industry seems to be moving toward two-row barley, referring to how the spikelets are arranged. NDSU started its six-row barley breeding program in 1948 and its two-row program in 1974.

“We have some two-row barleys that will stand now, in North Dakota, and have low protein,” Horsley said. “No one officially says we’re moving to two-row, but it seems that we’re going in that direction.”

Two-rows traditionally are used for brewing around the world. Germans use 100 percent two-row, possibly because it provides more extract out of the grain than six-row barley, which has been popular with U.S. lager beer makers. Extract is the amount of material available from a kernel to make beer. The higher the extract, the less malt needed.

North Dakota is nearly 90 percent a producer of six-row barley. Individual companies will make beer from 50 percent six-row and 50 percent two-row. The recipes are different and often closely guarded secrets. One official from a major malt company said during the tour that some of the preference is based on the cost of transporting the barley to a factory.

Six-row barleys have traditionally had better disease resistance than two-rows, but the improvements in two-row varieties make them as agronomically adaptable as the six-row varieties.

Horsley and others are using DNA markers to help select new varieties for the future. The work started back in 1993, but the technology continues to improve, Horsley said. “It allows you to reach more concrete conclusions. As a six-row barley breeder, I develop varieties that are acceptable to both Miller (Brewing Co.) and Busch. They have two different types that they want. So it’s like having two different barley programs in one program. In addition, you have the two-rows. So if we can get these DNA fingerprints to say this is the Busch-type and this is the Miller-Coors type, that’d be pretty helpful. And we’re getting pretty close to doing that.”

Genetic marking

The Anheuser-Busch varieties have higher enzymes and higher protein modification, while the Miller/Coors barley has moderate levels of enzymes. The DNA markers look at some of these specific malt parameters that differentiate the needs for the two companies.

Horsley said NDSU is working toward improved fusarium head blight (scab) resistance, to reduce accumulation of toxins. New varieties now exist that have better harvest characteristics — they stand better at maturity and don’t have to be swathed, as traditional barley crops are handled. Some of the new numbered varieties are being tested by the industry to determine whether they’ll be acceptable. One project is looking to reduce pre-harvest sprouting.

The officials speaking on the tour alluded to the idea that barley will need profitability and equity with other crops if it’s going to continue to be grown. That will require better harvest characteristics.

“I’ve seen more straight combining this year on varieties like Tradition,” Horsley said. “They’re much better than the older varieties used to be, but newer varieties we’re working with are even shorter than tradition and will stand much, much better.”

Politics and government policies are changing things.

Some Canadian farmers and marketers on the trip said they think Canada will produce more higher-yielding barley and wheat varieties as the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly goes away in August. One, who declined to be identified, said the historical spread for malting and feed barley was $1 to $2 per bushel, or $45 to $100 per metric ton. Now that spread has narrowed to about 50 cents per bushel, so farmers are more likely to try it for malting, but won’t see as big a price cut for it if it doesn’t make malting. Then mainline grain companies that contract barley production are more able to move off-grade, feed varieties.

“We may see some higher-yielding malt barley varieties go into the ground, potentially,” the man said. Farmers often were producing higher-quality grain than the market was looking for, and were not being rewarded for that quality, said Eldon Klippenstein, of K2K Farms Ltd., Altona, Manitoba.

Little feed barley

Steve Edwardson, executive director of the North Dakota Barley Council in Fargo, N.D., said barley production has been trending downward in recent years. Barley acres nationwide have declined by about 312,000 annually since 1987, as a result of competition with crops that have better pest control, ease of production and consistent profitability. “It’s been a straight downward trend,” he said.

He added industry leaders at all levels must realize why farmers make enterprise selections. “It’s about turning inventory and generating cash flow,” he said.

The primary loss of barley production has been feed barley, as farmers have shifted from barley to corn for feeding livestock, he said. “With less barley to choose from, malting companies implemented contracting programs with growers to secure production” since about 2004 and 2005, to assure supply, Edwardson said. Barley production for food, alcohol and industrial use remains relatively constant.

Barley isn’t like corn and soybeans in that it must be delivered in a living state, meaning it has to maintain germination to be considered for malt. Other crops are more forgiving.

In the past five to 10 years, barley — long seen as a commodity crop — has become a specialty crop. “That’s something we don’t see very often,” Edwardson said. “Typically you see a specialty crop become commoditized; here it’s gone the other direction. About 25 to 30 percent of the barley crop would make it into malting channels 20 years ago, but now two-thirds of the crop is malting.”

Many of the people in the industry have had very little access to barley plants, but may play a role in marketing or processing the crop. Most of the group was able to tour the Cargill malt plant, built in the 1970s by Laddish Malting. The plant employs about 120 people. It was acquired by Cargill in 1991 and changed its identity to Cargill in 2001. It has been remodeled in the past six years to increase its capacity, company officials said.

“They probably thought each stem comes from a different seed, so we show them how a plant produces multiple tillers,” Horsley said. He also showed tour participants how heat in May reduced the number of tillers and affected the size of the spike. “We show them that it’s different stresses across a season that will affect the plant — not only drought at the end of the year.”

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