Is malting barley a practical crop for you?

The fact that our state once sustained a substantial barley crop provides hope for the future, but does it make sense for your operation?

Conlon malting barley at harvest time in Empire, Michigan. l MSU Extension
Conlon malting barley at harvest time in Empire, Michigan. l MSU Extension

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for Michigan to harvest more than 100,000 acres of barley annually, and at times upwards of 300,000 acres was harvested. Since the 1950s, however, barley acreage has steadily declined. A brief resurgence in the 1980s did not reverse this general trend, and over the past 10 years, Michigan barley production has averaged just 10,000 acres. The fact that our state once sustained a substantial barley crop provides hope for the future, but does it make sense for your operation?

There is no doubt that the craft beer industry in Michigan would like to source more of their ingredients locally, but that has become a difficult task with declining barley acres in the state, and very few options for malt processing. The demand, however, has prompted a surge of interest in returning barley to crop rotations. But is this a sound management decision, and is there profit to be made with this grain? Michigan State University Extension educators have been working closely with farmers, maltsters and brewers as they navigate through this new and growing industry, but careful consideration must be made before embarking on this venture.

Malting barley is not managed the same as grain barley

A common sentiment heard amongst farmers that want to explore malting barley production is, “I’ve grown small grains for years, it can’t be that different!” Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Although experience in growing small grains such as wheat, oats or feed barley is beneficial, barley grown for malt is managed much differently. Managing crude protein levels in barley is one of the biggest challenges for farmers that are familiar with growing grain for livestock where a high crude protein is optimal. However, to produce quality malt, it is preferred that protein is at or below 12 percent. For this reason, fertility – primarily Nitrogen – must be closely managed so that over-application does not occur.

Disease is another parameter that must be closely watched in malting barley, where occurrence of Fusarium head blight can cause a build-up of deoxynivalenol in the grain, commonly referred to as DON or vomitoxin, which can be toxic to both humans and animals. Levels of DON over 1 ppm also leads to gushing or excessive foaming of beer and will be rejected by malthouses and brewers, however higher levels are accepted for livestock feed. Appropriate and timely application of fungicide is necessary in order to manage disease in the crop. Best management practices can be found in the Malting Barley Production in Michigan publication, and all quality standards for malting barley can be referenced at the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) website.

Not all varieties are created equal

Each year, AMBA publishes a list of acceptable malting barley varieties. It is important to adhere to this list when procuring seed because these barley varieties have been bred to most optimally meet quality standards, and they are going to be in the highest demand by malt processors. In addition, two row (two rows of kernels/seedhead) varieties are in the highest demand amongst craft brewers, whereas large commercial brewers most often use six row (six rows of kernels/seedhead) varieties. Seed supplies are fairly minimal in Michigan, but many seedhouses throughout the Midwest offer a wide selection of malting barley varieties.

The market is young

Although many farmers have the impression that they’ll grow some barley and then contact a brewery to see if they want it – it just isn’t that simple. The missing link is the malthouse, and that is something that is still quite rare in Michigan. Although there are a handful of craft malthouses sprouting in the state, the capacity is still not meeting the demand from local brewers. It is extremely important to build a relationship with one of the existing malthouses in the state before planting any seed. That way, an agreement on variety, growing practices and price can be pre-determined.

It is recommended that farmers and maltsters enter a formal contract and/or agreement, and that parties seek legal counsel to ensure a smooth harvest and transaction. Keep in mind; although a premium price is available for high quality malting barley grown and malted in Michigan, that premium can be quickly lost if quality parameters are not met.

The back-up plan

Even the most seasoned malting barley grower will have a crop from time to time that does not meet those high standards established by the industry. Weather is the primary factor that leads to excessive disease and potentially pre-harvest sprout, which damages the grain, hindering germination and proper malting. In the top producing states of Montana and Idaho, wet, cool conditions just prior to harvest in 2014 resulted in substantial crop failure. Although the weather is out of our control, having some built-in insurance is something for which we can plan. Having the ability to feed or sell grain for livestock is one way to make sure the grain does will be used. This is why malting barley production may appeal more to farms including livestock enterprises.

Positive outlook

Although the challenges to producing high quality malting barley may seem daunting, there is substantial reward to those that take careful consideration of the factors mentioned above. The Michigan craft beer industry continues to grow, and as the Michigan distillery industry finds it way in the state, demand for locally-malted grains will continue to rise. Malting barley production does not fit into everyone’s operation, but may be very well-suited to others, and for those, they can take pride in helping Michigan become not only the “Great Beer State”, but instead the “Great all-Michigan Beer State”!

If you are interested in malting barley production or malt processing, feel free to reach out to me at 906-439-5176 or I am the Coordinator of the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, Michigan.

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