GRAND FORKS, N.D. - It's been said many times that the customer is always right. And since beer makers increasingly want malting barley from two-row varieties, barley breeders are working to develop new and better ones - a process that they stress doesn't happen overnight.

At Anheuser-Busch, "We started breeding for two-row in 2010. We're making progress, but it takes time," said Austin Case, North American barley breeder for the giant beer company.

Case, Richard Horsley, North Dakota barley breeder, and Mark Black, North American barley procurement manager with Malteurop, spoke Dec. 11 at the annual Prairie Grains Conference in Grand Forks. The two-day event, which ended Dec. 12, typically draws about 750 to 900 people. It's organized by seven North Dakota and Minnesota farm groups, including the Minnesota Barley Growers Association and North Dakota Barley Council. Though the conference focuses on a wide range of agricultural issues and topics, it always has a strong barley component.

As has been the case in recent years, the 2019 event concentrated on two-row barley, which has become increasingly common.

Six-row barley traditionally has dominated in the Upper Midwest. It accounted for about two-thirds of North Dakota barley acreage as recently as 2015. But in the 2019 crop season, six-row accounted for an estimated 20% of the state's total barley acreage, with two-row accounting for the rest.

North Dakota typically ranks third in U.S. barley production, with Montana and Idaho taking turns in the top spot. The crop is grown in northwest Minnesota, too. Barley fares best in cool, dry conditions, which North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and northwest Minnesota typically provide.

Both two- and six-row 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.

But brewers, especially ones that make craft beer, but 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.

Another consideration: 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, barley officials say.

The demand for two-row creates challenges for Upper Midwest barley growers, however. There are major differences in growing the two kinds of barley, and there are relatively few two-row varieties suited for this area. Existing varieties' so-allied standability, or ability to avoid lodging, and susceptibility to sprout damage are particular concerns.

Barley breeders are working to come up with additional and better two-row choices for this area. But breeders want to incorporate different traits into new varieties, which slows and complicates breeding efforts, Case and Horsley said.

"It takes about 10 years at least" to develop new varieties, Case said. "We're not trying to move slow. We're trying to move as fast as we can. But we have to ensure we're gathering the data to produce the best selections to give you guys the best varieties."

Area farmers can benefit from growing two-row barley, but they need to be committed to the crop, raising it every year, not only when malting barley prices are relatively attractive, Black said.

"We need everyone of you," he told his Prairie Grains audience."But we need you every year."