Is barley making a comeback?

The crop doesn’t generate a lot of excitement but that may be changing

If you stopped looking at Prairie acreage numbers two years ago, you can be forgiven for thinking barley is not the sexiest crop choice out there.

Although it grabs lots of Alberta acres because of malting and feedlot demand, the barley sector is perceived to be slow to develop new varieties and tethered to inflexible malting specs.

But that’s changing.

After bottoming out in 2017 at 5.8 million acres seeded across Canada, barley has been bouncing back. This is no surprise to leading barley breeder Aaron Beattie.

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While barley still has its challenges — notably a reliance on older varieties favoured by maltsters and beer makers — the University of Saskatchewan scientist said times are changing and the industry is moving with them.

“Over the last five or six years we have had some tremendous new varieties available to producers and the malt plants are observing good results when using some of these varieties,” said Beattie.

“That’s better for growers because these new varieties are definitely higher yielding, they’re better agronomically and they meet the specs that the malt companies want.”

A major driver has been the craft beer industry, which is not only more willing to buy malt made from newer varieties but also uses more of it, avoiding adjuncts like corn or rice. The big brewers have followed their lead by developing craft-style brands which use more barley malt.

Barley should be part of farmers’ rotations, and newer varieties such as AAC Synergy and Sirish are reasons to get excited about the crop, says Bentley producer Jason Lenz.
photo: Alberta Barley

At the U of S’s Crop Development Centre, there has also been a renewed focus on developing specialized feed varieties. This may open opportunities for those focusing on growing feed barley rather than using the feed market as a backup if malt grade isn’t achieved, said Beattie.

Although difficult to attribute to any one factor, barley acreage is up — 6.5 million acres nationally in 2018 and around 7.4 million this year, according to StatsCan.

Barley producers have reason to be optimistic — and reason to grow the crop, said Jason Lenz, an Alberta Barley director who farms near Bentley.

“We can’t just grow canola and wheat back to back,” he said. “We are already seeing issues where disease resistance is being built up by short rotations.”

New focus on feed

Barley has long been in a ‘tail wags the dog’ situation, driven to serve its two primary end uses — beer and livestock feed.

Many growers focus on meeting the malting specs and if they don’t meet them (usually because protein levels are too high for malt), it goes for feed. But critics say malt varieties don’t yield as high. And while barley that doesn’t grade as malt is a nutritious feedstock, there’s also a missed opportunity to better target the needs of feeders, said Beattie, noting there’s currently about a 50/50 split in feed and malt acreages.

“There’s still room to breed varieties that are specifically feed varieties,” he said. “I think we probably can make some improvements on protein that you’re typically not aiming for in malt. A feed variety should have higher protein levels than rejected malt barley.”

Another issue is the preference of maltsters for tried-and-true malt varieties.

“Probably the biggest challenge with barley, in my mind, is variety turnover, specifically on the malt side of the industry,” said Beattie. “Malt barley producers have largely been working with two varieties — CDC Copeland and AC Metcalfe — that have been around for about 20 years now. That follows a trend established even prior to that with older varieties like Harrington, which was also a dominant variety for close to 20 years.

“It builds into this perception that there is not a lot of research or breeding effort going on, even though there has been a lot of progress made in barley.”

New players in the game

So what are some of the new barley varieties making inroads?

Beattie singles out CDC Fraser as a variety that has a good chance of replacing AC Metcalfe in terms of malting specs, while others such as CDC Bow, AAC Synergy and AAC Connect are also in a good position to replace older varieties.

On the research side, Beattie said there are new cultivars in the works which may narrow the yield gap between malt and feed barley.

“The new varieties coming from all the breeding programs are really up there in terms of yield,” he said. “The malt varieties are probably within a couple of percentage points of the feed varieties now.”

Lenz likes AAC Synergy.

“It has almost 10 per cent higher yield than (older varieties) and is starting to be grown fairly widely on a lot of acres in Alberta, he said. “It has potential to knock off a variety like Metcalfe.”

On the feed side, Lenz sees a lot of promise in Sirish, a two-row variety from Syngenta.

“It’s still quite new and has limited acres but the guys who have been growing it over the last year or two are raving about it,” said Lenz.

“It’s quite a short-straw, short-stemmed variety that has very, very big yields. It has the potential to become the new standard for feed barley much like how CDC Austenson did about 12 years ago — it was head and shoulders above anything we ever had for yield and plump kernels.”

Trade strong but tricky

Of course, the other side of the ‘what can you grow’ coin is what you can sell.

Part of the recent rise in barley acreage stems from the decision by India, which had been the largest buyer of Canadian pulses, to impose high tariffs on the crop. As well, China has been a big fan of our malt barley — accounting for more than two-thirds of barley exports (nearly 1.5 million tonnes) in the past crop year.

That’s in sharp contrast to the situation in canola, where Beijing halted canola seed imports from Canada following the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Beattie hopes there won’t be any such disruptions on the horizon but the barley sector knows from experience how quickly things can change. Japan was once a 400,000-tonne-per-year destination for Canadian feed barley, but sales plunged after it struck a trade deal with Australia that rendered our barley uncompetitive price-wise, said Lenz.

However, the ratification of the Trans-Pacific trade agreement last year, which lowered Japanese tariffs, is helping to regain some of that lost trade.

“There’s really good potential for getting more feed barley into Japan,” said Lenz. “There’s around 100,000 tonnes of Canadian barley going into Japan now.”

The trade situation for canola and pulses may continue to boost barley acres in the short term, but better varieties are the key in the long run, said Beattie.

“It (trade factors) might make a difference of adding three-quarters of a million acres, but longer-term increases in barley acreage are dependent on the uptake of new varieties,” he said.

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