Research helps make the malting grade
Growing malt barley can be a tricky business. A good crop can deliver a solid return, but making the grade often proves elusive. Research Scientist Dr. John O’Donovan’s study at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC’s) Lacombe Research Centre has compiled convincing results to support a number of practical agronomy tips to help growers make the grade.
“Sixty per cent of the barley varieties grown on the Prairies are malting barleys, but less than 25 per cent is accepted for malting barley every year. So, we are looking at the effects of agronomic practices on quality and yield,” he said.
O’Donovan’s project started in 2005 and is expected to wrap up this year. Three field trials were conducted in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, at eight locations representing all of Western Canada’s soil zones. The project is the first of its kind in North America to link agronomic practices directly to quality, made possible through a micromalt assessment process conducted by Dr. Michael Edney at the Canadian Grain Commission in Winnipeg.
Get it in the ground early
“Barley generally matures faster than wheat or canola, so there’s a tendency for farmers to seed a bit later,” said O’Donovan. “Our studies show it’s better to get in early in most parts of the Prairies.”
With the exception of the Peace Region, seeding early results in better yield, quality and net return. Early-seeded crops have increased kernel plumpness and tend to modify more completely during malting. Seeding early also helps to keep the protein levels down.
O’Donovan’s research has shown that seeding 300 seeds per square metre optimizes yield without compromising plumpness or causing issues with tillering and lodging. He recommends planting by the number of seeds per square metre rather than bushels per acre for more consistent results.
When it comes to adding nitrogen, it will increase yields, but causes quality problems by increasing protein and beta-glucan levels, and decreasing kernel plumpness. While generally farmers apply 119 to 120 pounds per acre of nitrogen, results have shown that the amount can, and should, be significantly reduced to prevent quality issues.
“Our economic analysis got increased returns up to 60 to 70 pounds per acre of nitrogen,” said O’Donovan. “After that, the return dropped.”
He noted that precise rates will vary from year to year.
“We advise applications of 60 to 70 per cent of soil test recommendations.”
Plant over peas
Conventional wisdom recommends planting barley after canola in a crop rotation, but research done by AAFC’s Dr. Kelly Turkington has shown that planting on a crop residue of field peas can increase yields up to 20 per cent without having a major adverse effect on protein levels. Planting barley on barley significantly increases the risk of leaf disease, lowers yields and decreases kernel plumpness.
Promising new varieties
O’Donovan’s most recent research has focused on evaluating four new barley varieties for nitrogen tolerance and yield—CDC Meredith, Merit 57, Bentley and Major all out-yielded the industry standard, AC Metcalfe, in trials. Meredith, Merit and Bentley had lower protein levels in response to nitrogen, making them promising options for the future.
Put malt back in the picture
Despite consistent demand for malt barley, strong markets for wheat and canola have been drawing growers’ attention. Will new varieties, better crop management tools and independent marketing be enough to bring more malt barley into rotation?
“Overall, malt barley acres have been declining, and it is becoming almost a niche crop here,” said Russell Shuttleworth, grower relations coordinator for Rahr Malting Canada Ltd. “Other crops are coming on now that the Canadian Wheat Board is gone, too. Canadian Prairie Spring wheat has really come on, and some guys have been out of growing malt barley so long that they are more apt to chuck in another canola.”
New varieties like CDC Meredith and new agronomic practices that improve control over quality and yield may offer an incentive to farmers to try malt barley in their rotations again.