Barley producers, brewers concerned about quality as drought progresses
With the drought persisting, barley growers are anticipating a much earlier harvest season with overall crop quality weighing heavily on the minds of farmers and the beer brewing industry.
Like producers of all sorts of crops, the drought is weighing heavily on barley growers as their harvesting season barrels around the corner. The harvest season is being pushed ahead due to the extremely dry conditions.
“Producers are definitely concerned, and they have good reason to be,” said Austin Case, North American barley breeder for Anheuser-Busch. “We’re definitely seeing harvest being moved up a couple of weeks.”
Jim Broten, a diversified crop producer who grows barley near Dazey, N.D., is seeing the heat impact his crop first hand.
“The barley is very uneven, and I am not sure what kind of quality we will have because of the heat. I don’t know this year, with the unevenness, just what we’re gonna do. Even some people that got a few early rains have a heavier stem, but even then they’re gonna have to worry about what kind of quality they have. It’s really a mixed bag,” Broten said.
A cool season crop
During a normal year, the Northern Plains are an optimal growing space for barley, as it is a cool season crop. Three factors play pivotal roles in the crop's overall quality: long daylight hours, cool nights and adequate soil moisture.
“With a lot of drought comes a lot of stress on the barley plant to fill kernels to produce adequate kernel size,” Case said. “We’re going to potentially be looking at lower plump barley, lower test weights and higher protein. So our agronomists have been out in the region working with their growers to try to optimally manage what they can through this drought.”
While yield is an important component of a barley producer’s harvest, barley quality plays a larger part in the barley’s overall value.
“They’re concerned about their yield, but they’re mostly concerned about their quality as well. Because we can only accept the highest quality barley for malting and brewing. The drought can really have an impact particularly around kernel protein,” Case said.
This is a stress that Broten is currently feeling when observing his barley crop. Though he has not yet harvested it, he has concerns about it not meeting malting standards.
“We’re worried about the protein getting too high for malting barley, too,” Broten said.
Along with the increased temperature has come an increased population of insects, one being grasshoppers.
“Increasing grasshopper populations are favored by hot, dry weather so they tend to increase during periods of drought. Grasshoppers are a common pest in rangeland. They have chewing mouthparts and they can eat the leaves or consume entire plants. They can feed on a wide variety of crops, including barley,” said Kevin Wanner, a Montana State University associate professor and extension entomologist.
New practices and technology
According to Case, new varieties of barley are being bred to withstand not-optimal conditions to help barley producers overcome future weather obstacles.
“We’re working on the genetics side, we’re working on drought tolerance, we’re working on disease resistance, stable yielding . . . varieties. A lot of good technology is being utilized to help breed better barleys,” Case said. "Thankfully, we do have some varieties that have some drought tolerance more than others, so we’re using that as a great opportunity, especially in the breeding program, to help select for drought tolerance for our growers.”
As for barley management practices, the region has been seeing a shift from six-row barley to two-row barley . While this has no doubt been a learning curve for producers, the transition to two-row barley helps greatly in the brewing and malting process, said Nikki Zahradka, Midwest regional agronomy manager for Anheuser-Busch.
“Traditionally, we would grow six rows in this region. Those six rows are bred very well for the region and do very well. But, we needed to make a transition to two rows just for pure extract value. Those two rows really give us that increase. As challenging as it is for the farmers to make that change, agronomically, it does really help with our beers,” Zahradka said.
To help with the learning curve of transitioning to two row from six row barley, as well as to show their appreciation for their barley growers, Anheuser-Busch hosted its Grower Days at its Moorhead, Minn., malting plant.
“It’s great to show our appreciation to our growers. Farming barley is not easy. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of work, and a lot of extra work to make sure the quality aspects that we ask the growers to provide,” Zahradka said. “We bring the Clydesdales here to show our appreciation and we bring lots of cold beer to show our appreciation.”
Barley growers were able to learn about the new varieties coming out, new genetics, soil health, the overall brewing and malting process and much more — all while enjoying an ice cold beer.
"No barley, no beer. We absolutely need these barley farmers and these barley acres in this region so we can continue to make the best beers in the world,” Zahradka said.
The Main Attraction
While many producers thoroughly enjoyed learning about new barley technology, drinking Anheuser-Busch products and catching up with fellow growers, one attraction seemed to steal the show — the Budweiser Clydesdales.
“To me the Budweiser Clydesdales are a little bit of American history that has been preserved and is still alive. It’s really the pride of Anheuser-Busch,” said Dave Thomas, supervisor for Budweiser East Coast hitch.
The iconic Clydesdales had their Budweiser debut in 1933 to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. Of course, along with the trusty steeds are always two dashing Dalmatians, who travel along with the hitch teams as well.
“Back in the day when we really did deliver beer with horses, they (the Dalmatians) would guard the load while the guys went inside to make their deliveries,” Thomas said.
For Thomas, seeing new memories being made between generations, while reminiscing on older memories, is a highlight of his Clydesdale experience.
“People really enjoy seeing the Clydesdales. Something that is kind of fun about taking the horses around is that we see a lot of people maybe bringing their grandkids out to see the horses, and they talk about a story when they got to meet the team for their first time,” he said. "People always enjoy meeting a movie star.”