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Area barley industry switching to two-row

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Richard Horsley, North Dakota State University barley breeder, tells the story of a North Dakota farmer who once was asked how much two-row barley he grows. The farmer replied, "As little as possible."

But times have changed. Two-row barley — once unattractive to North Dakota farmers because it's relatively difficult to grow — will account for about 80 percent of barley acres in the state in 2019, with six-row barley the remaining 20 percent, Steven Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council, estimated.

In contrast, six-row barley — long dominant in the state — accounted for 80 percent of North Dakota barley acres in 2005 and 65 percent of state acres in 2015.

But as Horsley and other participants in the barley sessions at the annual Prairie Grains Conference Dec. 8-9 in Grand Forks emphasized, strong and growing demand for two-row barley is a powerful inducement to make the switch.

If the customer is always right — and area barley growers say they accept that — then two-row barley represents both the present and the future for the area barley industry.

One important sign of that: Anheuser Busch InBev is actively looking for two-row barley contracts in the area in 2019, said Nikki Zahradka-Bylin, the company's regional agronomy manager.

And another signal of the switch: In April, Cargill announced it's closing a malt plant in Jamestown, N.D., citing declining demand for six-row barley.

Nobody in the area barley industry is surprised by the swing to two-row barley. But it's occurred faster than many expected.

"It's a sign we've seen coming for a long time and tried to prepare for accordingly (through more funding for two-row research). That said, we didn't see it coming quite this quickly. And we were hoping for more time," said Doyle Lentz, a Rolla, N.D., farmer and chairman of the North Dakota Barley Council.

The background

Barley fares best in cool, dry conditions, which the Upper Midwest traditionally has provided. North Dakota led the nation for many years in barley production and still ranks among the top three-barley producing states. In 2018, Montana had 730,000 barley acres, Idaho 530,000 and North Dakota 520,000, accounting for the bulk of the nation's 2.5 million acres.

But fierce competition from other crops, particularly corn and soybeans, had cut sharply into barley acres. In 1998, North Dakota farmers planted 2 million barley acres, nearly four times more than this past year. Now, with the greatly reduced acres, barley is a "specialty" crop, or one grown under contract.

Barley can be used for beer (malting barley) or to feed livestock (feed barley). The feed barley market has largely disappeared, though there's growing demand for barley as pet food. Both two- and six-row barley can be used for pet food; the pet-food industry prefers two-row because it's easier to pearl, or grind into smooth, round pellets, Edwardson said.

Both two- and six-row also can be used to make beer. Their respective names refer to the number of rows of kernels around the head of a barley stalk. The two kinds sometimes are referred as "two-rowed" and "six-rowed," as well.

Now, brewers, especially ones that make craft beer but also also major domestic breweries, increasingly expect farmers to raise two-row barley. Some beer makers say two-row barley produces a maltier flavor in beer. And two-row barley provides more malt extract, boosting efficiency and potential profits for beer makers.

'A different crop'

But raising two-row barley creates new challenges for area farmers accustomed to raising six-row. Area farmers have benefitted from decades of six-row variety breeding, as well as their own hard-won expertise in growing it — neither of which is of much value in raising two-row.

"It's like growing a different crop," Fred Lukens, a veteran Aneta, N.D., barley farmer. "What you used to know about growing six-row barley, throw it out when you're growing two-row barley."

For example, six-row barley should be planted as early as possible. But two-row barley "can't handle frost" and its planting date should be adjusted accordingly, Lukens said.

Perhaps the biggest concerns about two-row barley are its standability, or ability to avoid lodging, and susceptibility to sprout damage.

Horsley and other barley breeders are working to develop two-row varieties better suited to the area. But that takes time; plant breeding is notoriously slow.

In the meantime, the barley industry is working to smooth the transition from six- to two-row. Chris Spasoff and Rob Jarek spoke at the Prairie Grains Conference about some of those efforts.

Plant growth regulators, among other tools, are being used, said Spasoff, technical developer lead for malt barley with Syngenta Canada. She works with farmers on both sides of the border.

Jarek, with Stoller USA, which develops and sells plant performance products for agricultural producers, talked about some of the barley-related research in which his company is involved.

"We have the ability to strengthen the genetics we're working on," he said.

Lentz, who has been growing six-row barley for decades and first planted two-row three years ago, said he's confident the switch to two-row barley will be successful.

"We're working at it. It happened a little sooner than we expected or wanted, but we'll make this work," he said.