Les Properzi farms north of Edmonton in an area not known for malt barley production. Yet he has an 80 per cent success rate over 43 years. What are his secrets?

With fertilizer at unheard-of prices, farmers are scrambling to find crops that will make them a profit. Les Properzi of Westlock, Alta., thinks he has one of the answers — malting barley. Barley will produce like CPS wheat but with significantly lower input costs. The challenge is to achieve malting quality and get the premium price.

Properzi has been farming for 43 years. He crops 1,400 acres and has one-third of his acres seeded to malting barley each year. He had malt quality for 35 of those years, an 80 per cent success rate. Rod Fischer, marketing manager of Westlock Terminals, says usually only 20 to 25 per cent of malting samples sent in are accepted. So what does Properzi do that makes it work for him?

start with an even field

Properzi begins with planning ahead. “The field has to be right to start with. Your land has to be even,” he says. Bill Chapman, Alberta Agriculture agronomist in Barrhead agrees with that. A requirement for malting acceptance is an even sample. Green, small or frozen kernels will discount it. A uniformly even field with good drainage and clay loam seems to work best. Areas that can cause trouble are draws where the barley can lodge, or peat pockets, or bush around the field where moisture levels will be significantly different. Properzi’s land lies within a small area in the Westlock-Barrhead region that is suited to producing malt barley.

“You need to set out to get malting grade if you want it,” Properzi says. “We grow two-row Metcalfe. Our yields are anywhere between 80 to 100 bushels an acre, averaging 55 pounds per bushel.” Since AC Metcalfe was introduced as a malting variety, many farmers seed it and take their chances with getting malt quality. “Some guys get similar yields to feed barley varieties, so they’re not too concerned if they don’t make malting,” says Fischer.

Successful malt growers plan to get malt quality. “We’ll put in malt barley in April, before our wheat,” says Properzi. He puts on 70 pounds of nitrogen, maximum.

Fischer agrees with the practice of fertilizer in moderation. “You can’t fertilize to max,” he says, or else you’ll get lodging, which can delay dry down for those areas,

Marianne Stamm farms near Westlock, Alta.

giving you too much green in the sample.

Too much nitrogen will also elevate protein levels. Malt quality barley must have low protein levels, ideally under 12 per cent. Higher fertilizer rates tend to raise protein levels.

Use higher seeding rates

Properzi seeds 1.75 bushels per acre. This works well for him. Average seeding rates for feed barley are 1.5 bushels per acre. Alberta Agriculture research shows that higher seeding rates for malting barley will produce better quality. Chapman recommends seeding over two bushels per acre, even two and a quarter to two and a half.

Higher seeding rates give you more even maturity, plumper kernels and higher stand counts, which means fewer tillers and earlier maturity.

Spray for weeds, maybe for disease

Properzi sprays for weeds, but not for disease. “If you spray with fungicides, you’ll delay your harvest by two weeks,” he says. That’s something he wants to avoid, as the ability to harvest early puts him into that malt category, he says.

Chapman says many farmers are spraying fungicides now to get better quality. Some will grow two years of malt barley in a row, using fungicides to control disease. Some use a reduced rate of Tilt in a tank mix with wild oat herbicides to control early disease levels. If there is significant rain, they will go back with a full rate later. Chapman feels that with the higher seeding rates, the maturity will not be significantly affected.

Early maturity is key. “The majority of our malt is combined in August,” says Properzi. He swaths to get the green out, and combines the crop four days later. The Westlock area tends to get some fall rains early September. The nights also become longer and there is more dew, which raises the risk for staining of the kernels, and for chitting, a moisture-related problem that decreases germination. Malt-quality barley needs a germination rate of 95 per cent or better. Even just a touch of sprouting will disqualify grain for malt. Malt barley varieties are bred for good germination, so they are more likely to have chitting than regular feed varieties.

Properzi takes it off dry

“The optimum time (for harvest in central Alberta) is August 12 to 20,” says Chapman. Many successful malt farmers will combine at 18 to 20 per cent moisture, drying it down with aeration or low heat, and shipping it early. Combining at higher moisture levels helps to decrease the number of kernels breaking or cracking. Malt specifications state that not more than five per cent of kernels may be broken or cracked. Malt companies traditionally don’t like to accept grain that has been put through a dryer, so special care must be taken when drying.

This fall Properzi’s barley had a moisture content of 13 per cent. A rotary combine and extra care with settings prevents cracked kernels. He always combines the grain dry if at all possible, as he doesn’t have a dryer.

Malt barley fits well into Properzi’s rotation. He grows canola, wheat and then malt barley. Chapman says many successful farmers will put malt barley on canola stubble, so they have fewer volunteers. They will even grow malt barley on malt barley, using fungicide to control disease, something Properzi doesn’t do.

“Get your samples in early and be patient. Don’t give up. Take more samples in in January and June,” is Properzi’s advice. He stresses that it is important to be diligent in getting good samples while harvesting, from each field and bin. If the grain delivered is not identical to the sample, chances of getting rejected are high. Properzi has never had a load rejected.

Malt barley doesn’t work for everyone. “It has to work for the whole operation,” Properzi says. Percentage-wise, not a lot of malt barley is grown in the Westlock area. “There aren’t a lot of fields around here that are even,” says Fischer. “There used to be consistent good malt barley growers, but they are no longer farming.” If the land isn’t even, farmers need to harvest around sloughs, peat pockets and other problem areas. For many farmers, especially larger ones, this doesn’t fit into their operations.

Pulse crops tend to need harvesting at the same time as malt barley, so pulse farmers usually will not grow malt. There is a trade off.

Even if malt barley works for your operation, will it make money? “Rule of thumb, malt barley prices are a buck a bushel more than feed barley,” says Properzi. Fischer agrees. “Most years there’s a good dollar in it,” he says.

In the October 23, 2008 CWB PRO, No. 1 CPS was $268 per tonne, or $7.29 a bushel. Select Barley was $327 per tonne, or $7.12 a bushel. These prices are in store Vancouver or St. Lawrence. Malt barley inputs are significantly lower than for CPS wheat, which could make it an attractive alternative for 2009.

Properzi is happy with his experience. He plans to continue putting one-third of his land into malt barley.

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