Growing malting barley for the local craft brewing market can be challenging. While the big brewers have helped to consolidate malting barley into a few Northwestern states, it was once grown in many regions, including the Northeast. Today, New York State is leading the pack in reinventing the wheel, learning once again to grow, harvest, store, malt and brew malting grains into beer.
But malting-quality grain is hard to grow, particularly when currently grown varieties are those adapted to the much drier conditions in states such as Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.
Malting requires a living grain — one which will germinate at a rate above 95 percent, leaving little room for harvest or post-harvest handling issues. And that grain must be free of deoxynivalenol, commonly known as vomitoxin or DON, a mycotoxin which causes digestive problems in humans and livestock.
While DON can be eliminated during the malting process, it is indicative of the presence of Fusarium. DON is measured to prevent high Fusarium levels. DON levels for malting barley must be below one part per million.
Fusarium causes “beer gushing” or excessive foaming in bottled beer, and can pose a health threat. Another Fusarium mycotoxin, Nivalenol, is an up-and-coming concern. It is 10 times more toxic than DON.
Fungicides are needed to protect against Fusarium infections and are applied at the stage of full head emergence. A second, well-timed application can decrease infection, but may not be economically feasible, said Gary Bergstrom, Plant Pathologist, Cornell.
Fusarium head blight is “a little bit of a different creature in barley” than it is in wheat, Bergstrom said. It is difficult to see Fusarium head blight in the barley crop, and visible symptoms do not correlate with the amount of DON actually present in the grain.
There are no strongly Fusarium head blight resistant strains of barley. Interestingly, some barley cultivars may show resistance when grown in one location, but not in another. Because Fusarium inoculum can be found in crop residues and can travel in the atmosphere, eliminating the organism can be difficult. Best practices include: the use of certified seed; crop rotation to prevent barley from being sown after other cereal crops, small grains or corn; using a regionally-adapted variety of malting barley — but one which maltsters also want; proper timing and application of fungicides; and planting on well-drained soils.
Other disease concerns include the foliar diseases of powdery mildew, spot blotch and scald. Some are more prominent in either spring or fall barley varieties. Pests of concern to the malting barley crop include cereal leaf beetle and common armyworm. Blackbirds are an indicator of an armyworm problem.
Cultivating malting barley
According to Mike Stanyard, Cornell Cooperative Extension Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team, the farmers who jumped on the malting barley wagon and planted their worst ground to the grains have dropped out and the ones who remain in the game are those who understand that malting barley requires “the best ground” and a whole lot of management.
Well-drained soils, pH levels of 6.3 or higher, planting at a high enough density to help control grasses and proper fertilization are all needed to grow a crop that meets the quality standards for malting grains. And while quality is primary, enough of a yield to keep farmers profitable is important, too.
Protein levels in malting barley have to be between nine and 12 percent to make enzymatic magic. Exactly how amendments, such as added nitrogen, impact the protein content isn’t quite clear. For spring barley, Stanyard recommends 30 pounds of nitrogen at pre-plant and unless there are visible issues related to nitrogen deficiency, Stanyard doesn’t recommend any more nitrogen be applied to the spring malting barley crop. Winter barley, however, has typically turned up low in protein, and higher rates of nitrogen may need to be applied.
The crop requires harvesting at moisture levels higher than that which is needed for storage, so the grains must be properly and immediately dried down and retained at a moisture level of 12 percent. The grains should be harvested before rain can cause pre-harvest sprouting and as soon as the grain can pass through the combine. Harvesting the grain from the standing crop is the common practice in the region.
New York farmer insight
Farmer Francis Domoy, Domoy Farms LLC, has been growing malting barley since 2012 and currently grows 60 acres. He doesn’t have enough acres of good land to expand malting barley production, as the crop needs well-drained, preferably tiled, ground.
Domoy plants at a rate of 1.5 million seeds/acre — or about 150 pounds per acre — as he does not want a lot of tillers and prefers “single, straight straw with a large head,” he said. He’s seeking plump kernels, as smaller kernels decrease the quality of the malt. He sets the combine at 2.5 mph, harvesting the crop meticulously to prevent skinned or broken kernels.
Grass control has to be done in the previous crop, as there is no way to control grass in the barley. Field peas as the prior crop have proven to be successful with weed control. Fungicide for Fusarium head blight is applied at the highest allowed rate.
Seed availability has been a concern for Domoy, as well as for other farmers growing malting barley in the region.
Farmer Jeffrey Trout, of Poorman Farms, first grew malting barley in 2011, treating it just as he did wheat. “It was an unmitigated disaster,” he said.
He learned more about the needs of the crop and now grows 100 acres/year, primarily of winter barley, all under contract to malt houses “as long as it meets specs,” he said.
He plants in mid-September at the rate of 120 pounds per acre, but will be increasing the density of seeding. He adds 100 pounds of nitrogen in total, but does have problems with low protein. He does a lot of scouting in the crop and makes two fungicides applications each spring to protect against Fusarium concerns. He harvests the crop at 20-22 percent moisture.
After harvest
The harvest is only a mid-point in the emerging craft beverage food chain. The grain needs to be stored in a manner which retains its quality until it is delivered to the malt house. Right now, most of the grain storage is being handled by the farmers, a risk factor that threatens to stagnate the industry’s growth. Several unique grain storage hubs are being developed by farmers, and malt houses are acknowledging that they, too, need to be a part of the malting barley storage solution.
Quality is key to successfully marketing malting barley to maltsters and brewers. There are many quality parameters which can make it difficult for farmers to consistently have an acceptable crop. While malting barley of high quality commands a premium, the existing secondary markets often don’t cover the cost of production for crops which don’t meet malting specifications. The further development of secondary markets for malting barley is going to be critical to the industry’s growth.