Top Crop Manager

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Best practices for malt barley

Specialist offers tips on improving results.


November 15, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

Malt barley production has suffered over the past few years because of drought
and wet weather. However, even 2004 is not a write-off yet, and veteran malt
barley growers understand that malt barley production, like many other crops,
hinges on managing production to get the best quality.

"The malt barley industry tells me 2004 was very challenging. The wet
weather caused a lot of sprouting and chitting, which can be found in some samples,
but not others. Over the winter, the industry will be continually assessing
the quality of the samples," says Bill Chapman, provincial cereal specialist
with Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD) at Barrhead. "Farmers
need to keep submitting samples."

Despite the difficulty of the last few years, Chapman says malt barley can
be a profitable crop. Canadian Wheat Board numbers show a trend to more malt
barley acres, though this trend is less in Alberta. Chapman looked at crop insurance
numbers in 2002 and found that 56 percent of the barley grown in Alberta was
feed and 44 percent malt varieties.

"Over the last 10 to 15 years, we've put emphasis on growing feed varieties
if you are in an area that doesn't reliably produce malt quality," explains
Chapman. "That is part of the reason that Alberta's malt acres are lower
than feed barley."

Still, malt barley can be a profitable crop. The Economics Unit of AAFRD in
Edmonton analyzes crop returns and found that the 10 year average gross margin
for malt barley at Olds, Alberta, to be the highest of all crops at $87.82 per
acre.

"That's based on getting 100 percent selection for malt every year. The
reality is closer to seven or eight out of 10 years, but the returns still compare
favourably with other crops," says Chapman. "It all depends on the
area and management ability."

Fine-tuning the system
Ultimately, malt barley quality depends on co-operative weather. However, Chapman
says there are proven practices that go a long way to improve malt barley production
and selection.

Start with a recommended malt barley variety. The Canadian Malting Barley Technical
Centre (CMBT) assesses the quality of malt barley varieties and works with maltsters
to determine the acceptability of the varieties. Chapman does not anticipate
any changes to the recommended variety list, but suggests farmers check 2005
provincial variety recommendations. CMBT also recommends using certified seed
to ensure varietal purity. Seed treatment with a systemic formulation for fungal
diseases is also important.

Two-row varieties are the dominant malt barley type for domestic use, with
91 percent of domestic selection over the last five years. For export, six-row
malt barley has risen in popularity, with 37 percent of the malt barley selected.
This is sent mainly to the US to malting companies like Anheiser Busch.

Chapman says agronomic practices should be aimed at hitting the quality requirements
as laid out by the Canadian Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute. Some
private, contracted varieties also have specific quality parameters.

Land selection influences several quality parameters, including protein content
and kernel plumpness. Soils with clay or clay-loam texture tend to hold more
moisture, to help get the crop through lower rainfall periods and encourage
plumper kernels. A uniform field with few low or wet spots also helps to minimize
immature grain and frost damage. A uniformly mature crop is easier to harvest
and get in the bin sooner, avoiding fall weathering problems.

Chapman says malt barley is best grown on land with lower fertility. In the
Parkland, that usually means on canola stubble and "avoid pulse stubble
that will be higher in nitrogen fertility, which can produce higher protein
levels." In drier areas, malt barley production on stubble becomes more
difficult as protein levels can be too high.

Early seeding date and a seeding rate that establishes 25 to 28 plants per
square foot in central areas are important. In southern areas, 18 to 22 plants
per square foot is the recommended plant stand. This combination of a competitive
stand and early maturity helps the crop meet quality parameters. By seeding
early, when soil temperatures are four to six degrees C, at a depth of 0.75
to 1.5 inches, Chapman says the crop has a better chance of being harvested
in early August.

"You have to ask yourself the question, does malt fit with other crops?
Everything needs to be seeded within 10 days, and so you need to decide where
malt barley fits in your seeding plans compared to the other crops," cautions
Chapman.

In the central area of Alberta with higher rainfall, Chapman recommends a balanced
fertility program of 70-30-25-10 based on soil test recommendations, to help
ensure high yields, kernel plumpness and uniform maturity. While potassium (KCl;
potash) fertilizer is not typically deficient on the prairies, he says there
is some evidence to support the inclusion of potash in the fertility program
as potassium chloride promotes root growth and straw strength. It also improves
starch synthesis and water use efficiency, as well as helps the plants reduce
crop diseases.

"I see some trends that show potash helps reduce leaf disease and improve
straw strength. I know that most research shows there is not a response to potash
across the province, but especially in the Parkland I think it helps malt barley
production," explains Chapman. He says an exception is on heavily manured
land.

When using pesticides, Chapman emphasizes that only registered products should
be applied. He says Japan, a major importer of malt barley, is checking for
29 different herbicide residues in malt barley and will reject shipments if
unregistered residues are found. Pre-harvest glyphosate is on the unregistered
use list and should not be used in malt barley.

In moister areas, Chapman says a foliar fungicide should be considered to control
leaf and head diseases. "A virulent race of scald, to which current varieties
have poor resistance, is hurting malt barley production in Alberta."

Another interesting note is research from Westco Fertilizers of Calgary shows
that Tilt fungicide can be used to increase yield and kernel plumpness, even
if fungal disease is not present. "Curiously, if you apply Tilt at a cost
of about $10 per acre, it works to increase malt quality," says Chapman.

Harvest management becoming critical
Getting the barley crop off in malt quality is always one of the biggest challenges.
And as farm size grows larger with combine resources stretched, the challenge
is even more difficult. There is little that can be done about early fall frost
damage when the crop is seeded early. Using aeration or low temperature grain
drying is a key strategy in safely getting the crop into the bin as soon as
possible.

"Given the problem with harvest quality over the last five years, there
is a need to take another look at harvest management. This year, the weather
stretched harvest capacity to the limit, but aeration and grain drying can definitely
help get the crop off sooner," says Chapman. "I know there is a capital
cost, but it is the cheapest way to increase harvest capacity and it can pay
over the long-term, and not with just malt barley."

Straight combining is usually a good option, or if swathing is used, starting
at 30 percent kernel moisture is the recommended starting point to help get
the crop in sooner. Setting the combine to avoid peeling of kernels is also
critical. Set cylinder speeds and concave clearances to minimize peeling.

Immature areas of a field, such as low spots, should be harvested separately
to improve the sample. Accurate sampling of the bin also helps to market the
grain.

"You need to assess your risks and chances in making malt quality. If
your success rate is not one out of three years or better, then you should focus
on growing feed barley, silage barley for local livestock operations, or the
human food market." -30-

 


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