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Hulless barley: challenges and prospects

Hulless barley has many positive characteristics for feed, food and malt uses. Yet according to the Canadian Wheat Board’s 2011-12 Variety Survey, hulless barley is estimated to account for less than one percent of the barley grown in Western Canada. Nevertheless breeders, food scientists, industry development specialists and others continue to work on many fronts to help realize hulless barley’s full potential.

Hulless barley is not truly hulless, but the hull is much more loosely held onto the seed than in hulled barley, and the hulls are removed during combining. The absence of hulls means the grain has more nutrients and higher energy per unit weight than hulled barley and it requires less space to store and transport. The absence of hulls also means the seed is more easily damaged during handling, yields may sometimes be lower because the hulls are left in the field, and in some cases food and beverage processing is different than for hulled.

Feed uses: a price problem
Hulless feed barley has higher digestibility, higher protein and energy contents, and lower fibre than hulled barley, but that hasn’t been enough to ensure its success yet.

“We started developing hulless barley varieties here at Lacombe in the 1970s,” says Dr. Jim Helm, a barley breeder at the Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD). At the time, Helm and other Western Canadian breeders were excited by the potential of hulless feed barley. The first varieties were Scout (released in 1982) and Tupper (1984) from the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan, and Condor (1988) from FCDC.

Helm notes, “Condor was our first variety, and it quickly took a large part of the acreage. When we released the semi-dwarf, six-row hulless barleys, like Falcon, that really boosted the acreage. But then the producers began to find that buyers would only pay regular barley prices for it, and not what it was actually worth, which caused them to quit growing it.”

He explains, “Hulled barley is approximately 15 percent hull, so in 100 truckloads of hulled barley, there are about 15 truckloads of just fibre. So producers should only have to bring 85 truckloads of hulless barley to get the same price as 100 truckloads of hulled. But they are not getting that. Right there they are starting to suffer a 15 percent loss.”

The price problem remains today. Helm says, “I think people especially in the hog industry would like to have it, but they still don’t want to pay for its value. So you can’t get seed growers and regular growers to grow it.”

Bill Chapman with AARD’s Crop Business Development Branch identifies several challenges for hulless feed barley over the years. “Early yields on the hulless varieties were a little lower than hulled barley. And the price was also a problem. Originally Palliser Grain [a Calgary-based grain trading company] had paid a premium for it because they had developed some premium markets for hulless. But then Palliser went by the wayside. And the feed industry wouldn’t give a premium for hulless.” He adds, “And then just when the feed market for hulless started to come back, the pork industry went into the tank and prices fell again.”

Chapman sees another obstacle. “With our grain industry going to larger terminals, they don’t have the small bins anymore for specialty products. And grain shipping is in 50-car or 100-car units for trains. So you won’t see a lot of large commercial interests getting into speciality products unless the products have really high premiums attached.”

Nevertheless breeders haven’t given up on hulless feed barley. For instance, Dr. Joseph Nyachiro, FCDC’s breeder for six-row barley and hulless barley, continues to work on improving hulless multipurpose barley that can be used for feed and food. Nyachiro says, “I think hulless barley has potential for further improvements in agronomics, quality and multi-end uses to help capture opportunities that are yet to be exploited.”

As well, Helm and others at FCDC are addressing that crucial issue: the price problem. They have been working with the hog and cattle industries on feed value and the advantages of using near infrared reflectance spectroscopy. This rapid, accurate method to measure feed quality allows producers to buy feed based on its quality, not just its weight.

Helm explains, “If livestock producers can actually put a figure on the true value of hulless barley in their feeding operation, and that value is significantly higher than regular barley or wheat, then they can decide if they can pay the grower a little more for hulless barley and still get a better advantage and make more money on the livestock end. That way, the two parts of the industry are working together. That’s our hope for future.”

Food uses: big potential, some risk, small supply
Western Canadian researchers are working on various aspects of hulless barley for food uses, including developing food products, validating health benefits and breeding better varieties.  

For example, Dr. Linda Malcolmson with the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI) led a recent project on hulless barley food products. CIGI and AARD’s Food Processing Development Centre partnered on this project, with funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Alberta Barley Commission and the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).

“We thought a flour application might be the easiest way to get uptake of barley ingredients by food manufacturers.

We chose hulless over hulled types because the miller doesn’t have that extra step of removing the hull to produce flour from hulless barley. Also, only the hulless types have the high beta-glucan content, and we thought the enhanced soluble fibre would be compelling to food companies [because of the health advantages],” notes Malcolmson.  

The researchers used whole grain flour from five hulless varieties: CDC Rattan and CDC Fibar, which are waxy hulless barleys with high beta-glucan contents that were bred for food uses; Falcon, developed as a multipurpose variety; CDC McGwire, which is for both food and feed markets; and Millhouse, a milling variety that can be processed in the same way as wheat.

They developed product prototypes, including bakery products, snack foods, nutrition bars and meat products (flour is added to hold water and to bind the meat). She says, “The products we developed were fantastic. The flavour of barley is unbelievably good. I was quite disappointed that the flavour alone didn’t translate into more motivation for food companies.”

There has been some interest from some smaller food companies. Malcolmson explains: “A large food company doesn’t make a change overnight, whereas a smaller food company is more willing to maybe make a switch or offer a new product.
“But the biggest problem was the hulless supply just wasn’t there. One company in particular was very interested, but they had difficulty sourcing the hulless barley. Unless the supply problem is taken care of, hulless barley is never going anywhere.”

A coalition of barley stakeholders is pursuing another angle – they have submitted a health claim for food barley to Health Canada. Government-approved health claims help consumers make healthy choices and encourage product innovation by food manufacturers. Chapman says barley’s beta-glucan soluble fibre lowers blood cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease, helps with weight control, and improves glucose tolerance. He hopes approval of the health claim might increase interest along the value chain in hulless barley for food uses.

“If a company decides to take a chance and champion barley, that could make all the difference for hulless barley,” says Doug Munro of the CWB. But he cautions, “People had hoped that the health claim in the United States would significantly improve the market for food barley, but it doesn’t seem to have impacted it that much so far.” In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized its approval of a health claim for barley.

Munro adds, “It’s a big investment for food companies to bring a new product along. So, for instance in a product where they could use either oats or barley, they might choose oats because oats are already well known as healthy by consumers.”

The efforts of some small food companies on the Prairies could help spark greater interest in hulless barley. Nyachiro says, “There are some things happening in the niche markets, with companies embracing the use of hulless barley. Right off the top of my head are: Hamilton’s Barley Flour, which has done a great job of making barley flour available to grocery stores; and Progressive Foods Inc., which has made great progress in inventing quick-cooking barley and promoting the use of barley as a healthy food.”

Malting: innovation versus tradition
“I started working on hulless barley for malting over 15 years ago. At that time none of the hulless lines had been bred for malting, but they tended to have not bad malting quality,” says Dr. Michael Edney with the Grain Research Laboratory of the Canadian Grain Commission.

“We analyzed the lines coming through the system for a number of years, and we talked to the malting industry and showed them the potential. Hulless barley has higher extracts (which indicates how much beer can be made). Also, there is less spent grain afterwards and reduced transportation costs for both the barley going to the malt house and the malt going to the brewhouse. The maltsters got excited, but they never got excited commercially.

“Then a few years ago the malting industry finally said, ‘If we were ever to use hulless malt, only certain quality parameters should be worried about.’ So the breeders started breeding specifically for hulless malt. In 2009, Dr. Bill Legge from AAFC in Brandon released a variety called Taylor, and Dr. Brian Rossnagel and Dr. Aaron Beattie from the University of Saskatchewan released a variety called CDC ExPlus. Those varieties had really high extract, low grain protein, no adhering hulls, and low wort beta-glucan. The breeders are continuing to breed hulless barley for malting, mainly concentrating on disease and agronomics. But they are also waiting for commercial demand from maltsters and brewers.”

There have been small bubbles of interest from the industry. Edney gives an example: “In the winter of 2011, some hulless barley was moved into the US and malted as a specialty malt. I heard they were very happy with the final product, especially the craft brewers.”

He thinks several factors are barriers to commercial use of hulless malting barley. “One factor is that the big brewers only have so many silos and they figure they have to keep hulless separate, so they are not sure how to handle hulless malt. Also, to use hulless malt, they need equipment called mash filters and not very many companies in North America have those. Another problem is that hulless barley behaves differently in the malt house because it’s very sticky. For instance when they are moving it between vessels, it sticks to the belt, and it sticks to the vessels when they are trying to empty them. However, they could work around that if there was demand for hulless malt.”
The supply of hulless malting barley is also an issue. Edney says, “Right now, if someone asked me to find even 10 tonnes of one of the new varieties I’d probably have a hard time finding it.”

Helm identifies another challenge. “The brewers really like to stay with tradition. . . . When we release a new [hulled] malting barley that has virtually the same qualities as one of the old ones, the brewers are very reluctant to try it in case somehow the new variety has a slightly different taste or they have to change their process in some way to make it work. I think it would be even harder to get them to use hulless varieties.”

Edney believes the greatest potential for hulless could be with moderate-sized breweries. “A lot of them have mash filters and they are willing to put up with the annoyance of an extra silo if they can make a product that is more economical or more interesting from a marketing perspective.”

He is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of hulless malt barley. “When I did my master’s back in the early 1980s, I worked with Scout, the first hulless barley, and I was feeding that to chickens. There was all this excitement then, but nothing really came of it. So I don’t want to get too optimistic about malting, but we’ll continue to work on it.”

He adds, “Maybe if we keep plugging away at it, eventually we’ll have demand for this unique product. Maybe we need a new name for it. That’s what canola did, and look where it is now!”

Some people already refer to hulless barley as “naked barley.” There’s a name that conjures up marketing possibilities for Naked Barley Nutrition Bars, or Naked Barley Pancakes, or Naked Beer!

Growing hulless barley
Management practices for hulless barley are similar to those for hulled barley. The main differences are in seeding and harvesting practices.

At seeding, the key factor is that the hulless embryo is exposed so it is more easily damaged. Damaged embryos result in lower emergence and poorer competition with weeds. A few years ago, Dr. John O’Donovan, now with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was involved in a three-year study to assess seeding practices for hulless barley. The researchers compared the effects of different seeding rates and depths on emergence for AC Harper (hulled) and Peregrine (hulless) at Beaverlodge, Lacombe, and Fort Vermilion.  

“We found generally that, with the hulled variety AC Harper, you needed to seed about 300 seeds per square metre to get 200 to 240 plants per square metre; some of our recent work with hulled malting barley varieties has corroborated that rate. But for the hulless variety Peregrine, you needed to seed 400 seeds per square metre and that was with a seeding depth of about an inch. When we seeded to 2.5 inches deep, emergence of the hulless variety was even lower – we had to seed 500 seeds per square metre to get the target number of plants,” says O’Donovan.

He adds, “We also found that emergence tended to be more variable with the hulless variety. You couldn’t depend on it as much to get that target number of plants per square metre at a specific seeding rate. That makes sense because damage to the embryo can be variable depending on what processes the seed has gone through.”

Bill Chapman with AARD’s Crop Business Development Branch says, “Because hulless barley is not as competitive as hulled barley during early growth until tillering, your seeding density should be at the maximum for your moisture level. In the drier parts of Alberta, that’s 130 to 150 plants per square metre (13 to 15 plants per square foot). In areas with medium moisture, the range is 180 to 220 plants per square metre, depending on the soil’s moisture-holding capacity. With some of the clay soils, you can seed at the high end of that range. You can gain almost three to four days maturity by seeding a little heavier, but if it’s too heavy then you’ll get a lower percent plump. In wet areas, the range is 250 to 280 plants per square metre.”

Chapman also notes, “Because hulless barley is not as competitive, it’s important to spray early for good weed control.”

For harvesting hulless barley, he advises, “Set your combine like you would for combining wheat because hulless barley is a denser product; it is about 58 to 60 pounds per bushel.

“Also, adjust your cylinder speed and cylinder clearance or spacing to try to remove as many hulls as possible.”  He explains that commercial users want less than about five percent of the grain to have the hulls attached. Because it can be very difficult to get down to five percent at the combine, some seed cleaners have de-bearders to remove the last few hulls.

May 1, 2012  By Carolyn King

CDC McGwire Hulless barley has many positive characteristics for feed


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