Fresh Look at Growing Barley


barley_cOnce upon a time, planting barley was straight forward. Growers planted either a malt or feed barley variety in the spring - and that was the end of it. But today growers are taking a fresh look at barley, which may change the types of varieties planted in southern Idaho.

By Cindy Snyder

Don Obert, the barley breeder at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service's Aberdeen laboratory, is working on two lines of hullless barley. He believes it has potential as an alternative to malt barley in the Magic Valley, especially in areas where growers still rely on surface irrigation.

Irrigating hullless barley with an overhead sprinkler irrigation system can lead to discolored kernels because there is nothing to protect the kernel. The food industry is interested in extracting beta glucan from hullless barley that can be added to food products to boost the fiber content - such as a flavored fruit drink with beta glucan that provides 40 percent to 45 percent of the daily fiber requirement.

Hullless barley contains about 10 percent beta glucan compared to 5 percent for hulled barleys. Without the hulls, test weight runs 60 to 61 pounds, very similar to that of wheat.

Obert hopes to release one or maybe both of the varieties in the fall of 2010. He is working with a private company to determine which variety will best meet their criteria.

In addition to working on new varieties for food uses, Obert continues to work on new malt barley varieties including winter varieties.

Charles was the first winter malt barley released and it has been officially added to the brewing industry's recommended variety list.

Anheuser Busch has about 11,000 acres of Charles planted across southern and eastern Idaho.

Ron Elkin, a member of the Idaho Barley Commission who farms west of Buhl, had already harvested his Charles acres by mid-July.

He was surprised to see how short the Charles in the ARS trials near Filer looked.

Clark Kauffman has grown Charles for several years. He says growing winter barley instead of spring barley can save at least one irrigation each year, and in a year like this one, even more.

A second winter malt barley, named Endeavor, is in trials across the state. Both the yield and malt quality of Endeavor are much better than Charles, but it suffers from the same limitation as its predecessor - very little winter hardiness.

But what has impressed agronomists and growers alike is the ability of winter barley to tiller and produce a good yield even just 10 percent of the stand survives the winter. In the Aberdeen area, a 10 percent stand has yielded 100 bushel per acre.

Rather than plant a winter barley variety, some growers in the Magic Valley have tried planting spring varieties in the fall instead. The experiment had mixed results this year with fields in the Kimberly area yielding 150 bushels per acre, but those in the Filer area suffering from both disease and hail damage yielding around 110 bu. per acre.

But the real test for any malt variety - spring or winter - is whether the industry will find it acceptable.

Obert has seen varieties go through multiple years of field trials and malt tests, only to be rejected by a maltster. The malt testing process begins with a 20 pounds in a pilot test to 30,000 bushels in a plant scale test.

"Fifteen years of work can be wiped out if a maltster doesn't like how it tastes after six years of brew tests," he said. "The malting/brewing industry is very conservative. Once they get to the process to work, they don't want to change. To get a malt barley even to a plant scale test is very, very difficult."

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