Mark Seastrand has been around barley since he was a kid on the family farm. Now, the Sheyenne, N.D., farmer, who though the years has seen ups and downs for the crop, is relatively optimistic about barley this crop season, despite widening drought in key barley-growing areas.

"It's a crazy year. But I think barley will do all right," said Seastrand, a board director of the North Dakota Barley Council and also the barley representative on the U.S. Grains Council.

A strange brew of diverse factors, including drought and attractive oilseed prices, will cause U.S. barley acres to stay roughly the same, he thinks.

The Prospective Plantings report released March 31 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agreed with him. It pegged 2021 U.S barley acres at 2.6 million, virtually the same as the 2.62 million planted barley acres in 2020.

Though barley doesn't get nearly as much attention as wheat, corn or soybeans, the region's three major crops, it remains a cornerstone of parts of regional agriculture.

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Barley fares best in cool, dry conditions. Eastern Montana, western North Dakota and Idaho generally can provide those conditions, and so the three states dominate U.S. production of the crop. Montana farmers are projected by NASS to plant 60,000 more barley acres this year, with both North Dakota and Idaho farmers anticipated to plant 50,000 fewer acres.

South Dakota and Minnesota farmers, who grow small amounts of barley, are projected to plant a little less this year.

Take the NASS projections with a grain of salt this spring. As Seastrand noted, widespread drought — which now afflicts most of the Upper Midwest — almost certainly will influence what farmers ultimately plant. Barley typically is one of the first crops planted in the spring, and some farmers could decide not to plant barley in the hopes that rain later in the spring would allow them to plant soybeans instead. Or, good early spring rains could encourage some farmers to plant more barley and less of other crops that would be dependent on future rains.

Malt or feed

Barley can be sold as either malt or feed. Malt barley is used primarily for beer, while feed barley 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. Selling barley at the higher malt price gives farmers a better chance of being profitable, but doesn’t guarantee it. Inevitably, that reduces farmers' willingness to raise barley.

But Seastrand noted that barley is a good nutritional fit with dried distillers grains, a byproduct of the process used to turn corn into ethanol, which is fed to cattle. So there's opportunity for the barley industry to provide more feed barley for livestock, which over time could strengthen prices for it.

There's also a small but growing demand for barley from the pet food industry, Seastrand noted.

Barley generally is sold under contract, which means farmers sell a specified amount at a specified price, well in advance of harvest. The price and amount fluctuate from year to year.

Seastrand said he's heard reports, but can't be certain, that some farmers might plant barley without a contract this year.

Two- vs. six-row barley

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.

Brewers, especially ones who 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.

Most barley in the area is now two-row, though growing two-row barley is a challenge for area farmers who had successfully raised six-row for many years.

But there's potential upside to two-row this year. Two-row barley, initially developed for particularly arid areas of the western United States, generally doesn't need as much moisture as the six-row variety, which should be be beneficial in what threatens to be a drought-plagued year, Seastrand said.

"So there's reason to be optimistic about barley," despite the drought, he said.