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Eight steps to growing malt barley

While not all barley growers are aiming their product at the malt market, 
if you are, here are some agronomic tips to help you make the grade

For many farmers, barley is a good crop choice to include in their rotation, but the standards for malting quality are understandably high.

Dr. John O’Donovan, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research scientist, notes that “only about 20 to 25 per cent of the barley in Western Canada is accepted for malting every year.”

Farmers can increase their likelihood of getting malting quality barley by focussing on a few key things.

1. Variety choice

According to Dr. Aaron Beattie, assistant professor and barley and oat breeder at the University of Saskatchewan, two row malting barley acres account for roughly 50 per cent of the total barley acres grown in Western Canada.

AC Metcalfe is the most commonly grown malting barley variety, having about 50 to 60 per cent of the two row malting barley acres. The second most popular, CDC Copeland, has about 20 to 25 per cent of the acres, and a few other varieties occupy the remaining five to eight per cent.

2. Seed lot

The barley seed itself should come from a pure lot, typically certified seed. Some preliminary studies conducted in Alberta by Dr. T. Kelly Turkington, AAFC research scientist, in conjunction with Rahr Malting Canada, Ltd., in Alberta suggest that, when examining the productivity and malting quality of the seed, there are “very little if any differences between certified seed and seed that is one year — and I emphasize that, one year—away from certified” where the non-certified seed in question has been accepted as malting quality and was obtained from Rahr Malting barley growers.

If seed is more than one year away from certified seed, there can be dramatic differences in the seed that can lead to significant problems, including lower germination rates, lower quality characteristics, and a potential mixture of varieties or crop types.

3. Seeding timing

Because barley tends to mature earlier than canola or wheat, most farmers seed it later. However, O’Donovan observed that earlier seeded barley tended to produce better yield and quality characteristics. “The protein was always higher when we delayed seeding,” he says about his trials, and in all but the Peace River region, yield was higher with earlier seeding.

Early seeding also means that the crop may have matured early enough to avoid frost damage or other weather-related harvest difficulties that can occur.

Furthermore, desiccant use is not allowed on malting barley, so farmers with later crops must wait for the barley to dry down or, if possible, finish drying it in storage, which would come at an added cost.

4. Seeding rates

The ideal plant density is about 200 to 240 barley plants per square metre. O’Donovan achieved this by planting 300 seeds per square metre.

Assuming that only about 70 per cent of the seed put in the ground germinates, this means farmers must seed approximately 100 to 120 pounds per acre to achieve a similar density, depending on factors like row spacing, drill type, and variety.

Too high a seeding rate can see a reduction in yield and a reduction of net return; too low a seeding rate means barley yield and quality will not be optimized and farmers’ net return will again be reduced. Crop and kernel uniformity and disease levels are quality characteristics impacted by plant density.

5. Field choice

Field choice can also impact uniformity — level land typically means more even maturity.

The previous crop grown on the field has a major impact on disease. Barley grown on barley stubble poses the greatest disease problems, and productivity and kernel characteristics decline significantly compared to barley grown on canola or field pea stubble.

Malting barley is not often grown after a pulse crop in rotation because of concerns of higher nitrogen levels in the soil leading to a higher protein content in barley grain at harvest time. However, Turkington observed in his trials that “the protein content [in barley grain] after field peas was not significantly higher than after canola,” although he admits there was an indication of an upwards trend, and that the barley grown on field pea stubble yielded higher than barley grown on canola stubble. If farmers are careful and fine tune their nitrogen program, they could capitalize on the rotational benefit of planting malting barley after peas.

Crop rotation is greatly beneficial when it comes to management of disease and weeds. “A single year between cereal crops is simply not enough to see a huge benefit for crop rotation,” says Turkington. There is simply not enough time for crop residue to decompose. However, even with multiple years between cereal crops, farmers cannot assume that they have managed their disease problem. Some crop residue will remain in the field, acting as an important source of disease, and there is always the possibility of seed borne infections.

6. Fungicide

While spraying fungicide at along with herbicide to reduce a pass over the field is convenient, “it has very little direct impact in terms of protecting upper canopy leaves,” notes Turkington.

This is because leaves that emerge after the application are not protected, and the fungicide degrades over time. Spraying at the flag leaf stage will provide the most effective control of disease in the upper plant canopy at a time when the plant is trying to fill the head, which in turn leads to the plump, uniform kernels desired by maltsters.

7. Nitrogen

Nitrogen is “great for increasing yield,” says O’Donovan, “but it can have a negative impact on malting barley quality” because protein tends to increase as nitrogen increases.

In addition, nitrogen is linked to other malting quality traits like friability, beta-glucan content, and amount of malt extract, always having an unwanted effect. O’Donovan recommends that barley growers apply nitrogen at about 70 per cent of the soil test recommendation. Applying at higher rates becomes uneconomical and tends to drive down net returns.

8. Harvesting

Come harvest time, farmers must make the decision to either swath or straight cut their crop, a decision often influenced by the weather and how well the harvest is going in a particular year.

“It comes down to… how mature the crop is,” says Beattie. Straight cutting is generally preferred if farmers can get away with it, but without the use of desiccants, many farmers are forced to dry down their crop by swathing.

Turkington points out that, under wet conditions, there is a greater chance of microorganisms to grow on the dead plant tissue of a swathed crop because of the close proximity of the plants and the reduction in air movement through those plants. The presence of certain microorganisms impacts the malting and brewing quality of barley, sometimes leading to it being unacceptable for malting.

9. Storage

Malting barley, according to the Grain Grading Guide, is considered dry at a moisture content of 13-1/2 per cent or less. However, a moisture content of 14.8 per cent or less is considered dry and safe for the storage of feed barley. If the barley is stored under good conditions, there is little difference.

Ideal storage conditions include dry, clean bins where measures have been taken to prevent infestation and to make it rodent proof. These conditions can be maintained by both natural aeration or frequently turning the grain in the bin. †

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