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Winter barley: An emerging crop

History of barley production

Barley was one of the first domesticated crops and is now cultivated throughout the world. In Minnesota, barley has been an important spring-sown crop for more than 130 years, reaching a peak acreage over 1.2 million acres in 1988.

These days, the crop is used primarily for malt and feed, along with various food products. Barley used for malting is an important value-added commodity for producers. According to the Minnesota Barley Growers Association, high quality barley grown to malting specifications can command premium prices over feed-grade barley.

bar graph showing increase in MN breweries
Figure 1. Number of breweries launched in Minnesota from 2008-2017. Source: The Growler, MNBeer.com

In 2018, over 65% of barley produced in the United States was used for malt production for brewing. Over the past 30 years, barley acreage in the state has been on a steady decline. This was due to various market forces, competition with row crops such as corn and soybeans, and the fungal disease Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) or “scab.” Despite this downward trend, there is increased optimism for a recovery of barley acreage:

  • The upsurge of craft breweries is creating a demand for locally produced malting barley (Figure 1).
  • Increasing ecological pressures on the predominant corn/soybean cropping system threaten its sustainability.
  • Changes in cropping systems toward autumn-sown crops could evolve to prominently include winter barley as the main grain crop.

Unique opportunities for winter barley

In Minnesota, all of the barley is sown in the spring (April-May) and is referred to as spring barley. Winter barley, sown in autumn, has not been cultivated in the state because varieties do not have sufficient winter-hardiness to reliably survive.

University of Minnesota barley breeding program

Figure showing change in barley breeding emphasis
Figure 2. Emphasis of the barley improvement program over time at the University of Minnesota.

The barley improvement program at the University of Minnesota (UMN) has been in existence for over a century and has developed a number of popular, widely adapted spring six-rowed malting barley varieties.

Historically, six-rowed barley has been the predominant type grown in Minnesota. However, a very recent preference change now has most brewers favoring two-rowed varieties for brewing. Brewers prefer malts from two-rowed types, because the kernels are more uniform in size and can be crushed more effectively than the smaller laterals of six-rowed types. Two-rowed barley also produces more barrels of beer.

With the growing interest in winter barley and demand for two-rowed barley varieties, the established UMN breeding program is shifting its focus to develop two-rowed winter/facultative and spring type varieties (Figure 2).

Barley type definitions

two- and six-rowed barley heads
Figure 3. Comparison of two-rowed (left) and six-rowed barley (right) types. Photo: David L. Hansen, 2017

Vernalization requirements

True winter barley varieties require vernalization [i.e. cold period] to flower. Winter barleys are sown in the autumn.

Facultative barley varieties do not require vernalization to flower and are usually sown in the autumn but can also be spring-seeded.

Row types (Figure 3)

Two-rowed barley - Most brewers favor two-rowed barley because they generally have:

  1. plumper kernels,
  2. higher malt extract,
  3. lower DON, and
  4. lower protein.

Six-rowed barley- Advantages of six-rowed barley include:

  1. higher amylase,
  2. higher yield in the Midwest, and
  3. better leaf disease resistance.
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Cultural management considerations

The first step to introduce winter barley into Minnesota’s cropping systems is to allow it to survive Minnesota’s winter. Apart from the development of winter hardy winter barley varieties, cultural practices such as varietal selection, planting date, seeding density, and fertility management can greatly influence winter survival.

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Pest management

Compared to winter wheat, winter/facultative barley may require fewer crop protection inputs, such as fungicide and insecticide applications. In this respect, it is a lower input crop, helping to reduce overall expenditures and easing farm cash-flow.

Disease concerns

Diseases caused by a variety of pathogens are just one factor that may reduce yield and quality of the winter barley crop. Making an accurate diagnosis is important so you can effectively manage any emerging the diseases.

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Weed management

An integrated weed management system, combining all the available methods, is the key to successful weed control. There are many herbicides available for broad spectrum control of weeds in a winter barley crop. Quick to establish, barley often out-competes weeds by rapidly producing biomass and absorbing soil moisture during its early growing stages. The extensive root system of barley can also help it compete with weeds. Additionally, barley can release allelopathic chemicals that help suppress weeds.

Insect management

Insect damage to barley is typically not a major concern, but growers should always be prepared to scout fields and control insects if economic thresholds are reached. The economic threshold is defined as the number of insects or extent of damage at which some sort of control action should be taken to prevent an economic loss.

For more information, see the North Dakota field crop insect management guide, pages 13 - 17.

Harvest and storage

Autumn-sown winter malting barley is a developing crop in Minnesota. Producing the crop carries a higher risk, but can also yield a higher reward. Once grown, the crop needs to be harvested, cleaned, stored, transported and sold at an equitable price.

Barley should be combined when grain is at 16-18% moisture and dried to a target moisture content of 12%. Storage is usually at a premium for grain farmers, making malting barley storage and long-term quality maintenance major concerns for growers.

For more information, see Drying wheat and barley and Storing wheat and barley.

Future perspectives

As researchers develop winter barley cultivars that could, in the future, be adapted to survive harsh winter conditions and produce malting quality grain in Minnesota, it's important to understand the current stakeholder perceptions of such a crop.

Stakeholders of the malting barley supply chain include growers, malters, and brewers and all will play critical roles in the eventual adoption of winter barley production in Minnesota. A stakeholder interview project was initiated to characterize and evaluate stakeholder perceptions of winter barley as a potential crop in Minnesota and surrounding regions.

Findings of this study may facilitate potential collaborations between important stakeholders and researchers towards further breeding and agronomic development and commercialization of winter barley.

Acknowledgements

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) program.

Becky Zhong, graduate research assistant; Kevin Smith, barley breeder;  Jochum Wiersma, Extension small grains specialist; and Brian Steffenson, small grains pathologist. 

Reviewed in 2019

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