Top Crop Manager

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Getting to malt

Research to examine how inputs affect barley quality.

November 20, 2007  By Top Crop Manager

From pre-seed to harvest, there are many agronomic practices that can assist
growers in obtaining malt quality barley year after year. A new Canadian study
is looking to develop a production guide to give prairie growers the best possible
chance at achieving malt barley status.

The study, which began in 2005 and is expected to run over the next five years,
will be completed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Canadian
Grain Commission with additional funding and co-operation from the malt barley

"Currently, there is significant interest in increasing Canadian malt
barley production by one million tonnes," says John O'Donovan, a research
scientist with AAFC and a co-ordinator of this project. "At present about
25 percent of our barley production qualifies as malt and we think with the
right ingredients, we can increase that number by at least an additional five


O'Donovan says malting companies are increasingly looking at uniformity of
the seed to give an evenness of taste and appearance in their end product. This
study hopes to investigate how nitrogen application, fungicide application,
stubble type, tillage, seeding rate and other in-crop treatments affect the
end product. The study is unique in that it will relate agronomic practices
directly to malting quality, while helping to develop a better understanding
of what is important for malting quality.

Rahr Malting Canada in Alix, Alberta: maltsters look for consistent

A maltster's perspective
Bob Sutton is the director of grain and logistics with Rahr Malting Canada in
Alix, Alberta. He believes this study will reinforce what he already knows:
'garbage in, garbage out'. Poor management decisions in terms of seed choice,
fertility management, crop rotation and numerous other factors result in barley
that is not acceptable as malt.

"I think this study will help emphasize that fertilizer amounts are important,
that seeding rates and dates are crucial and that crop rotation will be important,"
says Sutton. "The less disease or weed competition, the less demand on
the crop in a year of low moisture. The earlier in the ground, the earlier off
in a year of high moisture."

So what does he look for? In terms of protein it depends what his customers
are asking for. However, in general, he can immediately pass over seed that
is peeled, diseased, stained, mildewed or sprouted. Past the visuals, he wants
even germination and appearance.

Looking at inputs
To give growers the best start possible, they need to obtain the best seed and
best genetics available. This means starting with certified seed and obtaining
an industry acceptable malt variety. This study will be using AC Metcalfe and
CDC Copeland as they are two successful varieties which are very different in
the way they process.

In 2005 the research team conducted some initial trials looking at nitrogen
application rates on the amount of protein in the end product. Results are not
yet available, however, conventional wisdom suggests that malt barley uses about
10 percent less nitrogen than feed barley and potassium rates are generally
higher with malt barley.

When warranted, foliar fungicides can be used to protect the upper canopy leaves,
leading to better grain filling. The plant disease and fungicide component of
the study is being led by Dr. Kelly Turkington, a research scientist in plant
pathology with AAFC. "This portion of the study will be looking at the
type of stubble into which we seed malting barley. What impact does this have
on crop health and risk of pest issues and how does this interact with fungicide
application and ultimately how does disease affect the quality of the malting

"When a barley crop has a problem with disease, it stops filling and you
need plump kernels to make a good malt barley," says Richard Marsh, a technical
field manager with Syngenta Crop Protection. "A foliar fungicide application
with Tilt protects the leaves so the grain can fill. The longer you can keep
a plant healthy, the better chance you will have for a heavier bushel weight."

While different regions have different weed issues, wild oats are the perennial
concern in malt barley crops. Weeds can create crop competition leading to reduced
yield and quality. Crop safety is paramount when spraying for weeds in malt

When all is said and done, the weather at harvest can make or break a crop.
"For the past five years we have had weather issues with harvest,"
says Michael Edney, a program manager in applied barley research with the Canadian
Grain Commission. "These weather exceptions are almost becoming the norm.
We haven't been selecting barley lately because it has sprouted, so we need
to look at seeding earlier to get the crop off the field earlier."

Take it from one who knows
Brent McBean is a fourth generation farmer near Strathmore, Alberta and a consistent
grower of malt barley. He says they do not 'try and grow' malt barley; they
consider themselves malt barley producers.

"We have targetted our entire cropping plans and our infrastructure needs
to achieving malt barley," says McBean. "The most important thing
I can suggest is to know your land. From there, you give your crop what it needs
so that it isn't stressed."

His goal is to create as uniform a product as possible so that, at minimum,
95 percent of the barley starts evenly at the maltster. He seeds early with
high quality seed, is careful with his fertilizer application and rotates in-crop
products that are gentle but effective.

"We recently started using in-crop fungicides when conditions warrant
and this seems to have benefits," says McBean. "We had such a wet
year, and where we were growing a barley on barley crop or under irrigation,
we needed to make sure that diseases stayed away. We were pleased with what
we saw in cases where we'd left test strips.

"I feel strongly that there's no stage throughout the growing process
of a barley crop where you shouldn't try and reduce the stress on the crop,
be it from diseases or weeds," says McBean. "We are very careful with
the herbicides we use; we stay away from anything harsh and use products that
are known to be as gentle as possible."

A recipe for success
A major study in the United Kingdom determined that the main factors in achieving
uniform malt barley were the quality of the seed and how the barley was treated
in the field. It found that agronomic factors had much greater influence on
the end product than the treatment at the malting plant. AAFC's study will determine
if those findings are the same in Canada.

"We know every year will be different and every area will be different,"
say O'Donovan and Turkington. "One goal of our collaborative study is to
provide growers with a package of information that shows how, under prevailing
conditions, they can come up with a management package that can increase their
chances of achieving a malt barley crop."

Dr. George Clayton, a research scientist with AAFC in Lacombe, Alberta, is
also a collaborator on the project and agrees with this assessment. He points
out that seed uniformity, also known as homogeneity, is of crucial importance
to malt quality, but the interactive effects of agronomic practices on homogeneity
need to be determined.

"The study hopes to address major gaps in our knowledge on the most effective
production practices to optimize malt barley yield and quality," says Clayton.
"This will add value to the barley production industry in western Canada
by increasing the amount of harvested seed that is deemed acceptable for malt."


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