Alberta Barley

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Jan 8

Making a (barley) list and checking it twice: demand for Synergy barley remains strong

Posted on Jan 8 By: Geoff Geddes, The Word Warrior

Last month saw the release of two long awaited lists: Santa’s nice/naughty compilation and the 2020-2021 Recommended Malting Barley Varieties list. The annual report from the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) gives producers a breakdown of malting barley varieties with the best potential for selection and marketing. Like Santa’s scroll, the barley list has good news for some, bad news for others and a few surprises along the way.

“One of the unexpected elements was how far AC Metcalfe acres declined in 2019 due to lower yields and disease resistance,” said Peter Watts, managing director of the CMBTC. “It went from 38.5% of seeded acres in 2015 to 23.7% last year, so that’s a dramatic drop.”

Though CDC Copeland remains the most grown malting barley variety at 44% of seeded acres, the high-yielding AAC Synergy was a pleasant surprise as it increased acres from 11.2% in 2018 to 19.2% last year. Perhaps most exciting for industry is the emergence of some promising new kids on the block.

“We have this suite of new varieties that are seeing scaled up seed production over the past couple of years,” said Watts.

Two of those varieties are CDC Bow and AAC Connect, both sitting at about 2% of seeded acres and expected to be available in commercial quantities in 2020. While it lags behind these two at present, CDC Fraser is also on the rise at 0.5%. 

Change is in the air

“This is an opportunity for the industry to transition away from AC Metcalfe – which has been dominant for so many years – and adopt new varieties that will fill that space going forward,” said Watts. “We are at a crossroads in 2020 where AAC Synergy is the first variety to really gain widespread acceptance since AC Metcalfe and CDC Copeland were introduced in the early 2000s.”

As well, Lowe, CDC Copper and CDC Churchill are all recently registered varieties that are still building up seed supply and showing promise. Ultimately, for the newcomers to find a foothold, or for established varieties to remain relevant, they need to work for the farmer, maltster and brewer.

“CDC Bow, CDC Fraser and AAC Connect are very good varieties with strong disease packages and high yields,” said Kevin Sich, supply chain director at Rahr Malting Canada Ltd. “They all just need market development, yet it becomes a real ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma for growers. The producer wants to incorporate the new variety, but there is no market access for it; meanwhile, the end user says they can’t sell the variety because farmers aren’t growing enough of it. We need changes in the industry if we want to bring new varieties to market faster.”

With the past year’s disappointing harvest, there is no excess of malting barley available. While that may mean a push by some maltsters to boost malt levels, it won’t be the case for Rahr.

“We probably have the best production contract growers in the industry working with us,” said Sich. “Even in a difficult year, they still come through by seeding earlier or tweaking other agronomic practices, so we haven’t seen the challenges that some other players may experience.”

Grow it or throw it?

For growers, one challenge is keeping up with what’s hot and what’s not in the malting world.

“Canada Malt is dropping Synergy altogether, which is odd,” said Wade McAllister, director at large with Alberta Barley and a barley farmer in Red Deer County. “They are big on Connect, Lowe, Fraser and Copeland, while Rahr is using a majority of Synergy.”

Since McAllister grows for both Rahr and Canada Malt, he is putting more Connect in this year for Canada Malt while still growing 1000-1500 tonnes of Synergy per year, as Rahr continues to accept it. In growing for multiple maltsters, he is largely unaffected by changes reflected in the new varieties list, but some producers aren’t as lucky.

“Synergy not being accepted at Canada Malt anymore is a big shocker for growers,” said McAllister. “Many people had Synergy as the majority of their acres as they started switching to it, and now suddenly they can’t sell to Canada Malt. It means they must all go out and buy new seed for a new variety. I had a bunch of Synergy seed left over and now can’t use it all, which is unfortunate. It comes down to the necessity of any variety working for all links in the value chain.”

In striving to meet varying demands for malt barley, producers must also be aware that if barley doesn’t fit with anyone’s specifications, it is destined for feed; though there may be a silver lining.

“There is a financial risk if your barley does not make malt quality, as the feed market tends to be lower value than malt,” says Geoff Backman, manager of business development and markets with Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions. “In the last two years, we have seen the gap between malt and feed prices narrow due to stronger export demands for feed barley. Trade deals like the CPTPP [Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership] have improved access to feed barley markets like Japan and are helping to minimize the value difference between malt and feed. We see this impact most strongly in regions with domestic livestock like Southern Alberta, where feed barley values were close to $4.97 per bushel at the end of November, 2019.”

Whether it’s Santa’s list or the malting barley compilation, those who don’t like the contents may be heartened by a common refrain in farming: There’s always next year.

Article written by Geoff Geddes, The Word Warrior
Featured article in The Grain Exchange newsletter – Winter 2020 edition 

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