Malting barley growers balance challenges with profit potential in Va.
RINER, Va. — Dan Brann and Chuck King, co-owners of Brann & King Farms, planted 80 acres of malting barley on their, fields.
Four years ago, the business partners diversified their booming pumpkin, forages and winter wheat operation by adding malting barley to the mix.
The first two years went according to plan. Brann described it as “beginner’s luck.”
Their third year, 2018 was a bit tougher. An entire load of barley was rejected by Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, N.C.
This season was also challenging — nearly a third of their crop went to the feed mill because it wouldn’t hold in storage.
“It looked good when we harvested it,” Brann said. “But when the analysis was run it was pre-germinated enough it couldn’t be stored for malt. Malters say they like it to last six to nine months.”
Malting grains prefer arid growing conditions like those found in the Midwest and Northwestern states.
The drier climate makes it easier for farmers to harvest the grains at precisely the right time.
However, Virginia farmers are embracing the challenges. If Virginia growers can produce barley at a profitable level it increases production of double-crop soybeans, said Dr. Wade Thomason, a professor and Extension grains specialist at Virginia Tech.
“There are also nice incentives to farm breweries and distilleries to encourage agri-tourism and when they can tell customers that the barley was grown in Virginia it adds value,” he said.
Foliar diseases are one of the biggest challenges to profitably growing malting grains, according to Thomason. One example is Fusarium head blight or scab, an organism that infects small grains that finds an alternative host in corn. If the organism infects the kernels in the head at the time it opens for pollen, the organism gets into the head and steals the nutrients, he explained.
“The result is small and shrunken kernels,” he said. “The organism can leave behind a vomitoxin, which is a problem for direct consumption.”
The vomitoxin is less of a concern in brewing but can create enough pressure to blow the top off the bottles or the plug out of the keg, a phenomenon called gushing. Timely fungicide application can limit a crop’s chances for foliar disease.
Pre-harvest sprouting is another obstacle for malt growers, Thomason said. Malters want good quality grains without sprouting because it gives them flexibility to store the grains and break dormancy when they want to.
“The relatively high probability of rainfall in humid environment can turn malt barley into feed barley pretty quickly,” Brann said. “Wet/dry cycles or several days of rain can quickly break dormancy.”
Brann says that he wouldn’t grow barley if he didn’t have the capacity to harvest precisely when the crop was ready. Immediate access to a combine that can get the crop off in two to three harvest days and a harvest bin with air and limited heat to maintain proper moisture levels is essential for success.
“When it’s ready in this environment, you’d better be ready,” he said. “We had an acre and a half of Calypso that was at 16-17 percent moisture when we checked it at noon. We went back out two hours later, and it was down to 14 percent. We harvested it right before it rained that afternoon. I wouldn’t think of growing malting barley if I didn’t have excess harvest capacity.”
Variety selection is critical to success. Virginia Tech’s Barley Breeding Program is working to develop varieties better suited for the Virginia climate.
In the early 2000s, Virginia Tech began its malting barley breeding program with a French barley known as Plaisant.
They crossed Plaisant with a Virginia feed barley and out of it came the variety Thoroughbred. Recent variety releases have included Secretariat and Calypso.
“We have been working to improve the genetic diversity of barley and have brought in gum plasma from around the world,” Thomason said.
Brann mostly grows Flavia, a variety not known to hold its quality after a rain, and he is experimenting with Calypso, a variety with promise to hold better in storage.
“If you’re thinking of growing malting barley, don’t draw up a budget based on all of your crop meeting malting quality. Have a plan for where to sell if it doesn’t meet the malter’s standards,” Brann said. “It’s easy to mess up, but if you use the varieties Virginia Tech has identified and follow their seeding rate and managed practices, it’s possible to have success.”