What are the biggest risks on producers’ radars when it comes to growing malting barley? Some might say yield losses, some might say disease, and some might say reduced kernel quality or high protein levels — or a combination of all of these problems and more.
New research customizes malting barley systems based on producers’ levels of risk aversion. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada bio-economist Elwin Smith and research scientist Kelly Turkington teamed up to analyze profitability in malting barley production systems over time.
They analyzed 21 site-years of field data from a variety of systems over three years, looking for the impacts of production systems on net returns. The sites, seven in total, were spread across a large area from the Peace River region of Saskatchewan to the Brandon, Man. region.
“We simulated returns from the yield and quality distributions that we got from the field data. Sometimes we got bad conditions or good, but mostly we got the average. Then we looked at how often you get good returns or bad based on production systems,” explains Smith.
They looked at three residue types (field pea, canola and barley), two fertilizer rates (50 per cent and 100 per cent of N soil test recommendations), and two fungicide treatments (no fungicide and fungicide applied).
Get better yields
The researchers’ most surprising result was that the best barley yields tended to be grown on field pea stubble, as compared to canola or barley stubble.
“There’s always been a concern in terms of protein levels in malt barley, and any practice that has an impact on protein could be detrimental,” says Turkington. “We hear this concern from colleagues in Australia, that they don’t recommend planting barley on a pulse crop, and that was the general feeling here also.”
Producers have traditionally veered away from planting barley on field pea stubble due to the risk of increasing soil nitrogen fertility to the point that protein levels increase, making malting barley unacceptable to maltsters. But Turkington says they did not see this in the field to a problematic extent, especially when a 50 per cent rate of nitrogen was used. A 100 per cent nitrogen rate following field pea generally resulted in slightly reduced net returns. Following canola or barley, net returns were marginally higher at a 100 per cent nitrogen rate.
Fungicide applications tended to increase yield and quality, but benefits were equal to costs. Smith says that due to the design of the study, fungicides were used regardless of field conditions. He recommends that farmers make fungicide decisions based on environmental conditions or what they spot in the field.
Turkington agrees. “We’ve worked with fungicides since the late 1990s, and invariably your response is strongest when you have frequent rainfall and moderate temperatures and a disease issue building as the crop is coming out of stem elongation into flag leaf emergence,” he says. “If you’re just spraying as an insurance policy based on advertisements in the farm press, you may not necessarily see that economic response as frequently as you would want.”
Turkington and Smith suggest that the best returns result when producers plant on field pea stubble, apply nitrogen at a 50 per cent rate, and apply fungicide at the flag leaf stage.
They caution against planting barley on barley, as this increases the risk of plant diseases and reductions in stand establishment, yield and quality over time.
These recommendations can be tailored to different levels of risk aversion. More risk-averse farmers can eliminate fungicide applications, reducing the possibility of a downside on returns, especially when barley is planted on a non-host crop such as field pea or canola. This also helps manage the risk of fungicide resistance developing among pathogen populations.
“A very risk averse producer selecting system FP-50-No [field pea, 50 per cent N, no fungicide] would give up, on average, $28/ha ($11.33/acre) to have lower risk,” the researchers write in the study.
They argue that producers choosing to plant malting barley on canola or barley stubble will find it more profitable on average to plant on canola than barley stubble ($81/ha, or $33/acre).
For producers who do not have pea stubble, the preferred system is to plant malting barley on canola stubble, use a 100 per cent nitrogen application rate, and apply fungicide. For those highly averse to risk, the best system is to plant malting barley on canola stubble, use a 50 per cent nitrogen rate and don’t apply fungicide.