by Tamara Scully
Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station’s Snyder Research and Extension Farm is growing malting barley, as extension agents research the feasibility of farmers cashing in on this in-demand crop. While these particular field trials are new, they demonstrate the old adage “everything old is new again.”
Although today’s resurgence of craft brewing has caused interest in locally grown and adapted varieties of hops and malting grains, barley trials like this one are certainly not new. Just ask Rutgers Cooperative Extension agent of Burlington County, Bill Bamka, who led similar trials at the research farm several decades ago, and is currently undertaking malting barley field variety trials with Steve Komar, Sussex County Extension agent.
“Twenty years ago, we had malting barley trials. We were growing hops on this farm,” Bamka said, adding that while the crop is similar, the methodology has changed.
Five dozen or more attendees of farmers as well as brewers from many of the state’s newly emerging craft brewing businesses, hopped aboard hay wagons for a ride to the fields, and to learn from the experts how a great brew starts on the farm.
One reason that Rutgers Extension agents are once again concentrating on malting grains is the recent passage of New Jersey’s Farm Brewery licensing, which makes it much more economically feasible for farm breweries to be established, Komar said.
And, he added, New Jersey has “people and dollars,” to build a local farm brewing economy.
“The market has to be there for us to justify putting all the time and money” into a crop, Komar said.
Current trials are looking at the performance of nine types of spring malting barley, both two-row and six-row varieties. Winter barley is also of interest, as it may be a much better fit for New Jersey’s climate, particularly in southern parts of the state. Since barley likes it cooler, winter barley would allow farmers in South Jersey to double crop, achieving more economic gain and utilizing beneficial crop rotation practices.
New Jersey “has a lot of free moisture,” Komar said. “Free moisture is a disease’s best friend.”
Concerns over powdery mildew, Fusarium head blight and smut are common when growing malting grains. Yellow wort, transmitted by aphids, and the cereal leaf beetle, which causes a skeletonizing effect on the grain, are equally worrisome to the grower, but this trial was managed differently.
“We want to see problems, so we did not manage as intensely as farmers need to do so,” Bamka said. “Let’s see what problems we’re going to get,” before worrying about controlling them.
For malting quality grains, these issues need to be very controlled. The threshold for vomitoxin is one part per million for standard grains, and much lower for malting purposes, Bamka said. Malting grains are “a little bit more intensive, a little bit different,” than growing grains for the conventional commodity market.
It takes intense scrutiny and management to produce a crop of high enough quality for malting. Since corn can harbor Fusarium, farmers of malting grains are going to have to tweak their rotations.
“Malting quality is the important characteristic. You have to meet requirements,” Komar said.
The field trials are also looking at fertility. Researchers want to determine the correlation between nitrogen application rates and the chlorophyll content readings. This would ultimately allow them to establish a model to predict the final protein content of the grains based on nitrogen application under differing soil conditions. Such a tool could guide farmers in controlling the protein in the grain, and preserving its malting quality.
For malting quality grains, protein content is paramount, and nitrogen rates impact protein content. Nitrogen has been applied at three different rates, and flag leaves are meter-measured for their chlorophyll content. They added 25 units of nitrogen to all fields, then either added 50, 25, or no more additional units.
“Protein content is really important,” Bamka said. “You want to see maximum yields, but don’t want protein content too high, or too low.”
“We’re trying to figure that out using every tool we have at our disposal,” added Komar.
Not only do the protein content and vomitoxin levels need to be within very precise limits for malting quality, the grain has to be able to germinate at a high rate, Bamka said. So harvesting and storing of the malting grains is different than that of commodity grains. Farmers will have to provide the quality of grain, which the maltsters need, or the grain will have to go to secondary markets, Bamka said.
Secondary markets for brewers and Farmers
Regional Livestock Extension Agent Bob Mickel explained alternative uses for malting grains, which would allow farmers to at least receive some compensation should their grain not be of malting quality. And, a secondary market for spent grains as livestock feed, will assist brewers in disposal of brewing waste.
Farmers could sell the grain to the secondary feed market, but would be sacrificing a lot of economic gain. If maltsters reject the grain, the livestock feed market might be a viable option. While high levels of vomitoxin can result in livestock birth defects and spontaneous abortions, grain with levels above the acceptable limits for malting can still be useable as cattle feed. Increased vomitoxin levels are of serious concern to the swine industry, but cattle tend to spit out grain, as the vomitoxin works on their tongue nodules, causing immediate feed refusal.
The straw market may also be a possibility, but malting barley varieties produce one-half as much straw as standard grains, Mickel said. How-ever, New Jersey, with an abundance of horse farms, does have a lucrative market for straw. The investment in equipment, however, is substantial. Due to disease issues, it is important to get the grain debris off of the fields, so contamination does not carry over into the next crop.
Mickel, who also raises cattle, has been using spent brewer’s grains, both barley and wheat, as feed for many years. He feeds about eight barrels of these grains per week, the equivalent of 1200 lbs. He prefers barley, which is about 50 percent moisture, rather than the wheat, which is much wetter. The rumen design of beef cattle can take variability in feed without an issue. It could compromise milk production in lactating dairy cattle.
“It’s an excellent cattle feed,” Mickel said. “It’s a good, dense feed for cattle,” with a 25-28 percent protein content.
Mickel picks up his spent grain at the brewery, in 55-gallon food grade drums. Due to high moisture, it can get moldy, which again is fine for beef cattle. In the winter, the barrels might freeze, but the cows chew the frozen grains right out of it. In the summer, his cattle are on grass, and receive minimal amounts of spent grain.
“It’s a by-product of brewing. You need to plan for this,” Mickel told the brewers.
For brewers needing to dispose of spent grains, bringing them back to the farm, in the form of cattle feed, completes the local-centric life cycle. From farm to glass, malting grains might once again bring economic gain to regional agriculture.
Brewers and farmers: Malting barley trials
by Tamara Scully