There’s a bright future for boring old barley.
Aside from malt, barley doesn’t generate a lot of excitement for Prairie grain growers — something you can see in acreage figures (which have fallen by more than a third in Alberta and by nearly half in Western Canada during the past decade).
But new technology is adding some pizzaz for both the feed and malt varieties.
Researchers at the Field Crop Development Centre in Lacombe are using novel technologies to breed better varieties that will grow more efficiently, be easier to market, and most importantly, be more profitable. At a field day last month, barley growers learned about two key projects that, when finished, could put more cash into producers’ pockets.
The first uses near-infrared technology to develop varieties for different markets.
“We’ve come to the point where we’ve made specific varieties for specific markets,” said provincial research scientist Lori Oatway. “It’s become quite detailed.”
Using near-infrared technology — traditionally used to determine protein and moisture levels in grain — Oatway can look at 50 different components in barley and target certain attributes.
“The breeders use it to select and screen samples if you want to pinpoint a specific variety for malting or for food,” she said.
Livestock feed is a “huge” part of the program, and the technology can be used to determine levels of protein, starch, acid detergent fibre, natural detergent fibre, and in vitro fibre digestibility. The food barley program, on the other hand, is “very small,” but growing all the time.
“There’s not much barley grown for food in Canada, but they’re still doing some very unique stuff with it,” said Oatway, adding researchers are working to increase beta glucan content in bread and cereal so merchandisers can add heart health claims to their packaging.
Twenty-five years ago, researchers might look at the protein, moisture, and maybe the starch content of food barley, but “now we’ve come to the point in time where barley actually has a health food claim. There’s a lot more interest in food barley.”
The bulk of their work is focused on crafting new lines for the malt barley market.
“This analysis has advanced so much in the last 20 years from what we were doing,” said Oatway. “We’ve come a long way from measuring just the protein and moisture — all the way to measuring flavour.”
Brewers tend to glom on to a specific malt barley variety that they like in their beers. It started with Harrington in the 1980s, which became the preferred malt variety for 20 years.
“Now we have AC Metcalfe and it’s in the same position,” she said.
The industry can be slow to take up new varieties — and that can cause heartbreak for breeders, particularly when they’ve improved the agronomic properties.
“Sometimes a variety goes through the whole process, and the brewer will come back and say, ‘Oh but it tastes different. It’s got an off flavour that we don’t like.’ And then the variety never goes anywhere,” said Oatway.
“You have all those million dollars in development, and then it dies. We’d really like to have the industry move over quicker and take our newer varieties for the yield advantages and the disease resistance that we’re putting into it.”
However, the explosion in craft brewing is changing the game and giving those different varieties a new home.
“The feedback we’re getting is that they want flavour,” said Oatway. “With the craft market, we’re actually seeing more potential for different flavours. They want to be unique, and they want those different things to make them unique.”
But developing new lines for flavour attributes is “very difficult and very subjective,” she added. Right now, she’s looking for funding for a project with Rahr Malting that could help with that. Using a micro-malting machine, researchers can brew a single bottle of beer from a malt sample of about 250 grams.
“It would go through Rahr’s complete sensory panel, where they would tell us what they like and what off flavours there were,” said Oatway, adding Rahr also has a full lab for wet chemistry analysis that could tell which components relate to flavour.
“If they can tell us what those components are, we’re hoping we can use the near-infrared technology to pinpoint some of those different components and say, ‘Oh that’s an off flavour and it’s measured by this. Let’s screen our varieties and make sure we don’t have it.’”
On the hunt for more green
Another project, led by provincial research scientist Yadeta Kabeta, is working to increase nitrogen use efficiency using a GreenSeeker crop sensing system.
“Cereals in general don’t make very efficient use of nitrogen,” said Kabeta. “Only about 50 per cent of the available nitrogen is utilized by the plant. The other 50 per cent partly remains in the soil and is partly lost to the environment.
“That incurs unnecessary cost on the producer.”
About 10 years ago, researchers began to select and breed for improved nitrogen use efficiency in barley.
“The idea is really to select and develop materials that can take up more nitrogen from the soil, as well as utilize that nitrogen more efficiently to produce grain yield,” he said. “Taking up nitrogen is important, but what pays for farmers is the yield. So we look at not only taking up, but also making the materials more efficient at converting nitrogen into grain yield.”
Growing crops under both high- and low-fertility conditions, researchers use GreenSeeker technology, which measures plant vigour, to assess how plants respond to different treatments.
“Plants that take up more nitrogen or use more nitrogen more efficiently tend to grow vigorously, show more green colour, and have better ground cover,” said Kabeta.
Researchers take readings at the tillering stage all the way to anthesis, monitoring how each variety progresses.
“At about the maximum biomass stage, we also take plant samples and we assess the exact amount of nitrogen taken up by each individual line. At the end, we look at the exact amount of nitrogen recovered in the grain.”
That information is used during the selection process in “decisions whether to advance some lines while discarding others.”
“We have identified some lines with better nitrogen use efficiency,” said Kabeta. “In general, the lines we’ve selected for nitrogen use efficiency show about 10 per cent improvement over the standard cultivars.”
One promising new line should be available for purchase in 2018.
“It’s showing really good nitrogen use efficiency, but also in terms of yield. It showed about five to six per cent higher grain yield over the best checks in the co-op trial,” he said.
“If this material continues to perform like last year, it will be put forward for registration in 2018.”