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Malting barley for northern Ontario

Opportunities and challenges for expanding production of this higher-value crop.


March 15, 2019
By Carolyn King

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Lakehead University’s Sahota is conducting nitrogen and sulphur management trials for malting barley as part of the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA) project. Photos courtesy of the Lakehead University Agricultural Research Station.

The Northern Ontario Agri-Food Strategy, released in 2018, identifies malting barley as one of the crops with growth potential for the region. Grower organizations, researchers and others are working to help northern growers capture this niche market opportunity.

“I think malting barley gives farmers in our region an opportunity to diversify within a crop that we know we can grow, to diversify their markets and potentially, depending on the market and the year, get a premium for what they are growing,” says Stephanie Vanthof, administrator of the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA).

For successful malting barley production, the crop needs the right growing conditions and special management to meet the strict requirements for the malt market. For example, the grain’s protein content must be within a particular range specified by the malting company. The grain must also have good germination, so damage from preharvest sprouting is not acceptable. As well, the grain should be disease-free and should have little or no fungal toxins like deoxynivalenol (DON) from Fusarium head blight.

Northern Ontario’s relatively drier and cooler weather mean that this region is probably the best part of the province for growing malting barley, according to Duane Falk. He is a professor emeritus in plant agriculture at the University of Guelph and has been breeding barley for over 30 years.

“Barley originated in a dry climate, so it doesn’t particularly like southern Ontario’s more humid conditions. That is why disease resistance has been the biggest challenge for the breeding programs because fungi and bacteria love humidity. Also, barley is a cool-season plant and the north is a little cooler during the peak of the summer,” Falk explains.

He also notes, “Another advantage over southern Ontario is the north’s higher latitude; it is almost parallel to Western Canada. Almost all the Canadian breeding work on malting quality is being done in the west, so the western-adapted varieties are currently the best sources of malting quality [although that may change in the future as eastern Canadian breeders put more emphasis on quality]. And plants like barley, wheat or oats are fairly daylength-sensitive, so when you move them north or south, it disrupts their natural adaptation.

“But if you move them east or west on the same latitude, it doesn’t bother them. So western varieties tend to do well in northern Ontario.”

Nicole Mackellar, manager of market development with Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), identifies another important factor: “There definitely seems to be interest from northern farmers in growing malting barley, and they have experience in growing some speciality crops. For instance, a lot of the milling oats grown in the province are grown in eastern and northern Ontario.”

Market situation

“I think there is a good opportunity for malting barley in northern Ontario. For instance, some northern growers have uniquely close proximity to a large end-user, Canada Malting Company in Thunder Bay, so they don’t have to truck their crop far distances,” explains Joanna Follings, cereals specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

As well, Falk notes that Canada Malting’s Montreal plant buys some malting barley from eastern Ontario, so high quality malting barley from northeastern Ontario might find a market there.

However, Follings cautions, “Craft malting capacity is limited in Ontario, even though the craft brewing industry in Ontario continues to grow and there is a demand from the craft brewers for barleys from Ontario.”

“Across the province we have only three commercial craft maltsters in operation today. And they are processing very low volumes [of malting barley] and most of them are already at their capacity,” Mackellar says. None of the three craft malt houses are in northern Ontario.

She also points out, “One of the things we have heard from every one of the maltsters that we’ve had discussions with is there is a lot of interest in using Ontario-grown malting barley, but 1) there needs to be enough supply, and 2) that supply needs to be at a consistent quality year in and year out. So identifying varieties that are suited to northern Ontario and fine-tuning some of the agronomics for growing malting barley are quite important.”

At the Emo station, Bliss is also exploring the possibility of producing hops, another beer ingredient.

Previous malting barley trials

In recent years, northern Ontario’s agricultural research stations have been working to develop local agronomic and varietal information to help malting barley growers achieve consistent yields and quality.

The New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station (NLARS), a University of Guelph facility, has conducted various malting barley trials over the years because of the area’s suitability for the crop. “Compared to southern Ontario, our lower humidity means that disease pressure isn’t as high, although you still need fungicide applications,” explains Nathan Mountain, cropping systems research technician at NLARS. “Another advantage is that currently not a lot of corn is grown in our region compared to the south, which in part reduces the prevalence of Fusarium head blight.” Also, the New Liskeard area lies in northeastern Ontario’s Clay Belt, which has good soil for crop production.

NLARS’s recently completed malting barley trials include a collaboration with SeCan in 2016 to evaluate seven varieties, and a comparison of two varieties, two seeding rates and five nitrogen rates from 2014 to 2016 that was part of an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada multi-site project.

Mountain says, “We’re close to getting the agronomics nailed down for malting barley, but we still need a little more research to help farmers.”

Tarlok Sahota, director of the Lakehead University Agricultural Research Station (LUARS, formerly the Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station), explains that the Thunder Bay area has several advantages for malting barley production – Canada Malting as a buyer, the research station to provide information for local growers, and good growing conditions.

Sahota has been conducting malting barley trials at the station since 2014. He focused on variety trials as a starting point because genetics play such a big part in achieving top yields and quality. Canada Malting conducted the malting analysis for these trials.

Along with identifying varieties suited to the area, like CDC Bow, Bentley, AAC Synergy and CDC Copeland, these trials showed that the area can produce good quality malting barley. He says, “For example, kernel plumpness for malting barley should be at least 80 per cent. In our 2014 and 2015 trials, we had averages of 91.5 to 96.2 per cent. We also had zero to very low levels of undesirable traits like pre-harvest sprouting, weed seeds and disease.”

Sahota identifies some factors that contribute to this high quality. “Thunder Bay is located on Lake Superior, which has a moderating effect on the temperature. Barley likes cooler growing conditions and in particular it prefers cooler temperatures at night.” The Thunder Bay area also tends to be less wet and humid than some of the other cereal-growing areas in the province, and many of the cereal fields in the area are tile drained. As well, the area has productive soils.

The University of Guelph’s Emo Agricultural Research Station (EARS) has done some malting variety testing, with Canada Malting providing the quality analysis. Manager Kim Jo Bliss says, “The trials we conducted a few years ago were mainly because Canada Malting in Thunder Bay was interested. Canada Malting sources a lot of its barley just west of us in Manitoba, so they are driving right by our area, the Rainy River District, and they know that crop production here is increasing.”

Bliss notes, “The biggest challenge that I see with growing barley in general in our district is the lack of drainage because we tend to get a fair bit of rain.”

Part of the NOFIA project, these trials at the New Liskeard station are comparing 10 malting barley varieties.

A major new project

A major malting barley project is currently underway in northern Ontario, building on the foundations of the earlier trials at the three research stations. NOFIA is managing this three-year project (2018 to 2020), which includes research trials at NLARS, EARS and LUARS, and on-farm trials by the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN).

“We know northern climates and northern conditions differ from southern Ontario and the rest of the province, but even within the north the conditions differ quite a bit,” Vanthof explains. “And to get the right specs for malting quality, the production practices around malting barley can be a little more intensive, so it is really important to give the farmers the best management information possible to increase their chances of having really high quality malting barley.”

The project is funded by GFO and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (the Partnership), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of the Partnership in Ontario. Canada Malting is also a key partner, conducting all the malt quality analysis for the project.

NOFIA’s Emily Potter, who is managing the project, explains that the research trials involve two studies. One study is assessing the performance of 10 malting varieties; they include heritage varieties and dual-purpose feed and malting varieties. The varieties were selected based on their performance in previous trials at the New Liskeard and Thunder Bay research stations. The other study is comparing the effects of different sulphur and nitrogen fertilizer treatments on malting barley yields and quality.

The three research stations are collecting data from the trials on such factors as days to maturity, plant height, grain yields, straw yields and thousand kernel weight. Canada Malting is measuring characteristics like protein content, preharvest sprout, germination and energy.

RAIN’s on-farm trials are testing malting barley varieties. Mikala Parr, research technician, notes, “We had two sites in Algoma in 2018. Due to seed availability, we were only able to plant one variety of dual-purpose malting barley at each site. But next year, we will have two to three varieties per location.”

Sahota is the project’s technical lead and he designed the two studies in the research trials. The fertilizer study is a 7×3 trial. The nitrogen treatments are zero, 35, 70 and 105 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare applied as urea alone and the same rates applied as a combination of urea and ESN (3:1 on a nitrogen basis). The sulphur treatments are zero, 8 and 16 kilograms of sulphur per hectare. The treatments are applied to CDC Bow, the top performer in Sahota’s previous trials.

In his past cereal research, Sahota has found that using urea plus ESN (Environmentally Smart Nitrogen, polymer-coated urea) can be effective, and he has experimented with different proportions of the two products to determine the optimal ratio. He says, “Urea provides nitrogen earlier in the season to get the crop off to a good start, and ESN provides nitrogen later in the season during grain fill.” In his experience, the yield boost from ESN tends to more than make up for ESN’s higher cost. Also, ESN is safer than urea for seed-placed nitrogen applications.

Falk is pleased to see that both sulphur and nitrogen are included in these trials. “With nitrogen, you need enough fertilizer to get reasonable yields but not so much that the protein content exceeds the malting company’s specifications. So you need to know your soil type and how your particular situation responds to nitrogen,” he says.

“Sulphur rates are much more of an unknown because up until about five or 10 years ago, we never worried about sulphur. We were getting free sulphur fertilizer from the smoke stacks of all those coal-fired power generators. Most of our crops mine the sulphur from the soil, and now we are going to have to figure out how to replace it or work with lower sulphur levels.”

Hopes for hops, too

At EARS, Bliss is exploring the possibility of producing hops, another key ingredient in beer. “Hops is a new crop for us so we have taken a lot of advice from people with experience in hops production and then made it work for the equipment and staff that we have. In some ways, we’re learning as we go,” she explains.

“We have set up a small hops yard with two varieties. We planted half of the yard in 2017 and the other half in 2018. In 2018, we harvested the hops from the ones planted 2017. They did really well.” Bliss is planning to send some samples for quality testing to look at the effects of earlier versus later harvesting.

“It is a demonstration to see if it will work and if it is something that people in our district are interested in growing. And people are interested – lots of people came to our station in 2018 to see the hops yard,” she says.

“The whole craft brewery business is so big right now, and craft breweries tend to want local hops if that is an option. We have Lake of the Woods Brewing Company in Kenora and Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in Thunder Bay. And a brewery is being built just across the river from us in Minnesota, and there is talk that one might be built right in our district.”

Tips for growing malting barley

“Malting barley is a unique opportunity, but new growers need to really do their research on the management requirements because it takes more management than feed barley. Start out small before diving in,” Follings recommends.

Bliss offers a few tips: “Use well-drained fields or tile-drained fields. A fungicide would definitely be helpful. And use good crop production practices to try to avoid anything that is going to set the crop back.”

Mountain notes, “In a wet fall, taking the crop off early and carefully drying it down can help reduce some of the pre-harvest sprouting.”

Mountain, Follings, Mackellar and Falk all emphasize that it is crucial to have a contract for malting barley before you plant it.

“You need to know exactly what the malting company wants,” Falk says. “That means working closely with Canada Malting or a craft maltster, having a contract in place with the company, and understanding exactly what the requirements of that contract are before planting.”

Mackellar adds, “We’ve seen examples in the U.S. where there has been a surge in interest in growing malting barley and some farmers have tried growing it for the spot market. Unfortunately, they ended up getting burnt because there wasn’t enough market share available.”

A grower’s contract with a malting company will specify such things as the barley variety to grow, the quality specifications such as protein content, and the price for the grain. Typically, malting companies require between about nine and 12.5 per cent for beer making. However, Sahota and Mountain point to recent news reports that China wants between 12.8 and 13 per cent protein. Grain with slightly higher protein might also be suitable for making malt for the distillery market.

“If the barley doesn’t meet the requirements in the contract, then there will either be a penalty or maybe the company will not want it at all,” Falk explains. “So the farmer also needs to have a plan B [such as a feed barley buyer] because the crop doesn’t always work out for malting quality. For instance, if it rains for a week just before harvest, you’re going to have sprouting because malting barleys are bred to sprout rapidly and uniformly, and they will do that in the field almost as well as they do in the malt house. And if it sprouts in the field, nobody is going to want to see it in a malt house or a brewery.”

Opportunities for greater production?

What would it take for northern Ontario growers to successfully increase production of malting barley?

“In northern Ontario, there is a lot of scope for expanding agricultural production,” Sahota notes. “Farmers are clearing land and tile draining their fields. If northern farmers have research and extension support from the government and other organizations, then production will probably continue to improve.”

“For many farmers in northern Ontario, malting barley is probably a new crop. So it is really important is to make sure good agronomic research and resources are available,” Mackellar says.

Follings adds, “Research like the current project to refine fertility recommendations and test varieties is great because it gives growers better information on how to successfully grow malting barley.”

Developing malting varieties specifically for northern Ontario would probably not be economically practical because the growing area is relatively small. “However, there may be the possibility of working more closely with the western breeders,” Falk notes. “Perhaps we could get some of them to do some evaluation and selection of earlier generation material at sites around northern Ontario, to identify lines that do really well in northern Ontario but might not be the very top performers in Western Canada. [Then those top northern lines could be included with the top western lines in the next stage of the breeding process, which is the quality analysis.]”

Follings, Falk and Mackellar believe that increasing craft malting capacity would also be vital for success. “Expanding the craft malting industry in northern Ontario will be a critical component to move the malting barley industry forward in the region,” Mackellar says. Although some malting barley from northern Ontario might find buyers at the craft maltsters in southern and eastern Ontario, she explains that craft malt houses tend to be “hyper-local,” tightly focused on their very immediate area.

She notes, “I know there have been several conversations about other craft malting operations starting up. Perhaps someone who is a craft brewer or has friends in the craft brewing industry and has a keen interest in developing an all-Ontario value chain for the craft beer industry, might take this on.”

GFO is currently investigating possible alternative markets for barley when it doesn’t meet malting specifications. Mackellar says, “Feed is one of the main markets that could provide an alternative; we are also looking into the possibilities available within the food sector – consumers are interested in food barley particularly because of its health benefits, which could provide additional marketing opportunities.”

Mackellar also points out that another essential factor for success would be adequate pricing all along the malting barley value chain so that all the players feel they are getting a reasonable price for their product.

The price for malting barley influences growers’ decision about whether to try to produce the crop. For example, in the Thunder Bay area, barley for malt and barley for livestock are competing with each other. Sahota notes, “Almost all of our producers are livestock producers, and 98 per cent of those are dairy farmers, so they are growing barley for silage or feed.”

The price also affects crop management decisions. Falk says, “If malting barley is worth more, then growers will invest in more management and inputs, and probably get better crops.”

“Grain Farmers of Ontario sees opportunities for malt barley not only in northern Ontario but across the province. We are involved in a number of discussions and initiatives that are providing support both from a market development and research perspective,” Mackellar notes.

“For instance, we have been engaged in a number of industry-wide discussions with growers, researchers, seed companies and malting companies, talking about how we can advance this opportunity. Malting barley will probably never be a tremendously large industry for us in Ontario, but I think there is definitely an opportunity to tap into this niche market which hopefully will bring a premium to our farmers.”