Weather will have the final word, as it always does, but barley could hold its ground — literally — this year in Montana, which leads the nation in acres of the crop.
"It appears the acres will at least stay stable," and possibly could increase, said Cassidy Marn, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.
Barley isn't as prominent in the Upper Midwest as corn, wheat or soybeans. But the crop — generally considered a specialty crop and usually grown under contract, rather than sold on the open market — is a rotational mainstay for many farmers in western North Dakota and Montana.
Last year, U.S. farmers planted 2.7 million acres of the crop. Montana led the way with 920,000 acres, followed by North Dakota (580,000 acres) and Idaho (540,000 acres), the big three of U.S. barley production. Minnesota farmers planted 70,000 acres of the crop, South Dakota producers 37,000 acres.
But difficult harvest conditions, especially in Montana and North Dakota, allowed only 2.2 million of the 2.7 million planted acres to be harvested in 2019. Only 765,000 of Montana's 920,000 planted acres and 450,000 of Noth Dakota's 580,000 planted acres were combined last year.
Once, barley was popular across much of the Dakotas and western Minnesota. But growing competition from other crops, especially corn and soybeans, steadily has pushed barley production westward into western North Dakota and Montana.
Barley fares best when planted early. So an early start to planting this year could boost barley acres, while a late start — which once appeared likely after the difficult conditions that hampered 2019 fall field work — could hold down barley acres in Montana.
Mid-March weather in Montana generally has been conductive for an early planting start, which is encouraging, Marn said.
Another factor to consider: Difficult 2019 fall weather conditions may have held down planting then of winter wheat, which potentially could boost barley acreage this spring, she said.
On the other hand, barley — which can be used to make beer or for livestock feed — fetches a much lower price when it's fed to animals. The uncertainty of whether barley will make the higher-paying malting grade can discourage farmers from raising the crop, she said.
Virtually all of Montana's 2020 barley crop will be the two-row variety, with only a small amount the six-row variety, Marn said.
The respective names refer to the number of kernels round the head of a barley stalk. The two kinds sometimes are referred to "two-rowed" and six-rowed," as well.
Both two-row and six-row can be used to make barley. But beer makers, especially ones that make craft beer, which is highly popular in Montana, increasingly expect farmers to raise two-row. Some beer makers say two-row produces a maltier, more appealing taste in beer. Also, two-row produces more malt extract, which increases efficiency and potential profits for beer makers.