Growing local barley for local beer-making

Statewide interest in local barley has Michigan State University moving ahead with research on malting barley.

Barley production ranks a distant third among small grains in Michigan, with approximately 8,000 acres harvested in 2011 compared to 30,000 acres of oats and 680,000 acres of wheat in 2011 according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. With a price of $3.50 per bushel and average yield of 48 bushels per acre, it is no surprise that grain farmers were not diving into barley production. Most of the barley grain produced was used for livestock feed on-farm or sold at local elevators. Barley is a reasonable choice for on-farm feed production.

Barley is comparable to corn in feed value with about 9 percent less energy and higher available phosphorus. Grain is generally ground or rolled before feeding to improve feed efficiency. Some barley is stored as a high-moisture grain. Barley is still a good option in areas of the state where growing conditions make corn grain production unreliable. Your local Michigan State University Extension educators can provide information on barley varieties, production practices and feeding programs.

The real excitement in the Michigan barley picture has nothing to do with livestock or feed grains. The current, rapid growth in the Michigan craft brewing industry has resulted in strong interest in locally sourced ingredients for locally produced beer. For several years, MSU Extension has been involved in development of hops production in the Grand Traverse Bay area. Interest has also emerged regarding local availability of malt for small breweries. For malt products to be truly local, high-quality, malting grade barley grain must also be available locally. Malting barley grain standards are very high, requiring a higher level of crop management than feed-grade barley. The anticipated price for locally produced malting barley when a new, niche market emerges should make the effort to grow it worthwhile.

Over the past three years, small-scale research projects relating to malting quality barley production have been conducted at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center (UPREC) in Chatham, Mich. (see photos below). Disease management, nitrogen fertility and variety evaluation have been the focus so far. The idea driving these trials has been to create a new cash crop opportunity for northern Michigan farmers with the possibility of entering the commodity malting barley markets with points of sale in Wisconsin or further west.

During summer 2013, the concept of local malting barley grain and malt production emerged with strong industry support from the Michigan Brewers Guild. With over 140 micro-breweries in the state and more coming along, there may be real opportunities for specialty malting barley grain production. One problem is the lack of smaller scale, local malting facilities to process the barley grain into a malt product available to brewers.

Efforts are underway to expand research and development for local malt production statewide, including production of malting grade barley grain. Key players include the UPREC, MSU Extension and the Michigan Brewers Guild.

Local malting barley grain production will probably not move barley acreage up a notch among the three top small grains in Michigan. However, it could provide good opportunities for farmers interested in a specialty crop.

Planting management trial at UPREC Barley emerged
(Left) May 14, 2013, planting management trial at UPREC. (Right) May 28, 2013, barley emerged.
All photos in article: Jim Isleib, MSU Extension

Malting barley variety trial Malting barley variety trial
(Left) July 17, 2013, malting barley variety trial at UPREC. (Right) Aug. 2, 2013, malting barley variety trial at UPREC.

Harvest management trial Seed cleaning
(Left) Sept. 16, 2013, harvest management trial at UPREC. (Right) Sept. 16, 2013, seed cleaning.

For more information, contact MSU Extension educator Jim Isleib at or 906-387-2530.

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