Barley produced for malting must meet strict quality standards before acceptance by end users. A crop that doesn’t make malt will be sold off as feed, often at considerable economic loss. Two large-scale malt barley producers share their tips on which management practices they employ to ensure their crop makes malt.
John Burns is part of a four-member owner/operator team at Windy Poplars Farm. The team manages some 20,000 acres in Kandahar, Sask., just south of Big Quill Lake. Of those 20,000 acres, approximately 2,000 are devoted to malt barley production each year. Burns, who has 40+ years of experience, offers these tips for ensuring your crop makes malt.
1. Know your fields and soil
Barley does not have webbed feet, said Burns, and it does not like excessive moisture. While lighter-textured soils can be more forgiving with excess moisture, heavy clay soils are not. If the soil is too wet come planting, it’s best not to seed barley, he said.
Finally, Burns recommends seeding into fairly uniform fields. Variability in topography and fertility could spell problems for barley, as uneven maturity creates problems at harvest.
2. Plant into a good seedbed
Keeping the previous points in mind, good trash management is also important for uniform emergence.
“You have to be somewhat fussy on how the material from previous years was managed on that field,” he said, adding that uneven trash often results in colder, drier spots. “A harrow will not solve the problem.”
Burns also suggests planting seed into soil that has maintained a temperature of 5 C. When the soil is too wet, he opts for a warmer temperature. However, if the soil is dry, 5 C is a safe temperature for planting, he said.
3. Get the best possible start
A successful malt barley crop starts with good seed that’s been treated with as many seed treatment aids as the soil requires. Burns aims for 250 plants per square meter or 25 plants per square foot, aiming for even maturity in the stand.
“An uneven plant stand leads to a lot of challenges in trying to have your seed mature at the same time and you would not have the characteristics that a maltster would require,” he added.
A good fertility package will also get the crop off to a strong start.
“A high level of potash — and in our case phosphorus — is key to a good malt barley crop,” he said. “We’ll generally put the crop on fields where we know we’ve had a good phosphate program in the past, and we’ll also make sure we’ve got between 40-50 lbs. of phosphate on when we seed the crop itself.”
Burns chooses to side band rather than seed place fertilizer, and he adds one pound of nitrogen per bushel of barley he expects to produce.
Fungicides are also an import part of maintaining a good crop. Burns says he uses fungicides even in a dry year, making one application at early flag and another at head emergence.
“Market prices will determine how hard you push this,” he said.
4. Harvest early
According to Burns, harvest begins when malt barley reaches 17 per cent moisture, at which time it can be stored. In hotter weather, grain will need to be cooled and gently dried.
“I think for anyone who wants to have some consistency in producing malt barley, a drier is critical,” he said. “We’ve dried barley in the last four years and have never had an issue with germination.”
Another reason that Burns chooses to harvest at 17 per cent moisture is because conditions then are best for harvest equipment. The combine, he said, does a better separation job when moisture is a little higher. Higher moisture also lowers the risk of damage in the form of cracking, peeling and breaking, which helps to maintain seed viability.
“We can harvest probably 15 to 20 per cent faster at 17 per cent moisture than we can at 13.5 per cent moisture,” he said. “The combines can handle, it there’s less grain loss. Those are win-wins for us in most years.”
5. Maintain good storage
In storage, barley needs to be well aerated. Burns noted that he never puts malt barley in grain bags, as the barley can quickly go out of condition.
“Barley is sensitive,” he said. “You want to keep that living organism in condition because you’re counting on it germinating at a specific stage in specific conditions when they do the malting process.”
To further ensure storage conditions remain at their best, Burns uses sensors to detect moisture, temperature and variability. Stored malt barley should be kept at 5 C to 10 C in the storage facility, he said.
6. Maintain good relations with your buyers
The biggest issue most malt barley producers face come time to sell is grain with too-high or too-low protein levels. While some markets, like China and Mexico, look for higher protein, domestic markets prefer levels somewhere around 12 per cent.
To maintain those relationships, Burns keeps contacts with buyers throughout the season and during harvest. “They go to bat for you if you have history with them,” said Burns. “If there needs to be anything modified, they will accommodate you.”
Matt Enns, malt barley producer and owner of the only micro-malting facility in Saskatchewan, offers extra insight on the subject. Along with three other owner/operators, Enns manages 10,600 acres of grains near Rosthern, Sask. In the fall of 2019, Enns was elected to the board of directors of the Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission (SaskBarley).
About 80 per cent of the malt barley they grow is sold on the commodity market. The other 20 per cent is used in his own malting facility, Maker’s Malt.
Making his own malt has helped Enns better understand the needs of brewers, especially craft brewers who look for lower protein levels.
On-farm research trials revealed that cutting nitrogen applications by one third led to lower protein levels (between 11.2 and 11.5 per cent), but also lower yields. Since there’s no economic incentive for higher quality malt barley, lowering yield is not an option for growers who make most of their money on the commodity market.
For growers like Enns who work directly with local microbrewers, there’s value in producing quality grain with lower protein levels.
“The first thing we learned was what qualities are important and why,” said Enns. “Plump kernels translate to higher starch content, which after we malt it, moves into simple sugar that then the brewers yeast will attack and turn into alcohol.”
“This bag of malt is going to make more beer for that brewer, and they’re going to notice that in their brew house efficiency and basically get more value out of my bag,” he said.
Understanding the process and communicating with the end user makes a world of difference, concluded Enns.