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Want to grow a crop that's perhaps the best suited for low-fertility fields and land that is eroded? Want to sell a product to the splurging craft brewer industry? Want to grow a crop that could provide a per-acre return higher than is projected for corn and soybeans this year?

But as attractive as those points, which apply to malting barley, might sound, they are also offset by several risks — challenges that were outlined in an Extension Service webinar devoted to the production and marketing of that grain. Much of the information was based on data from field plots in Wisconsin's western Buffalo and Chippewa counties in the past three years.

The presenters were Buffalo County agriculture agent Carl Duley; Chippewa County crops and soils agent Jerry Clark; and University of Minnesota agronomy and small grains graduate student Matthew Haas — a substitute for scheduled presenter Brian Steffenson, who is a cereal grains disease specialist at the University of Minnesota.

Field plot studies

Because virtually no research had been done on growing malting barley varieties in Wisconsin's climate, the field plots began in 2013 to learn if the strict quality standards set by the American Malting Barley Association could be met, to identify differences between the many malting barley varieties and to make comparisons between differing fertilizer inputs and fungicide applications, Duley explained.

Both winter and spring barley varieties along with two- and six-row varieties have been grown in those plots, Duley said. The two and six refer to the number of rows of kernels on the barley head. The two rows include adjunct and all-malt varieties.

One challenge with the winter barley varieties has been winter survival — very close to either 0 or 100 percent, he said. All of the 26 winter barley varieties in Buffalo County's plot survived for the 2015 crop year. Except for a variety from Russia, however, no winter barley developed in the United States has proven itself to be dependable for surviving the winter in the region's climate.

Even after the three years of trial plots, more research is needed to identify the top varieties, Duley acknowledged. He listed the ability to cope with weeds, drought and heat as necessary traits. The plans for 2016 include growing some spring varieties obtained from Europe (Scarlett is popular choice in Europe).

Duley reported good results with the 2, 4-D and Affinity herbicides for early season burndown and control of broadleaf weeds. However, concerns remain about the late-season growth of foxtail weeds.

Crop rotation

For a variety of reasons, malting barley can be grown on poor and eroded soils, ideally following a soybean crop and definitely not after alfalfa or corn, Duley said. Because of the concern about maintaining quality and preventing disease, malting barley should also not be grown on wet soils, and the fertilization and herbicide history should be known.

The spring varieties should be planted by the first week of April if field conditions allow at 1.3 million seeds per acre with a seeding depth of between 1 and 1.5 inches, Duley advised. To reduce the possibility of diseases and of lodging and to encourage the growth of plump kernels, the plant population should not be too high.

Seeds for the plots in the two counties have been obtained from North Dakota. He suggested checking with certified seed dealers and growers for available supplies and pointed out that growers in Michigan have become suppliers of malting barley to about five craft brewers in the state — a market that does not exist yet in Wisconsin.

Variety distinctions

Among the malting barley varieties Duley mentioned or that have been grown in the county plots are the six-row Quest, Rasmussen, Tradition, Innovation, Legacy and Lacey, along with the two-row Copeland, Metcalfe and Pinnacle.

The two-row varieties are favored by craft brewers in large part because of their plump kernels, but direct buyers have not emerged in Wisconsin,. He added that the large brewers in the United States prefer the six-row varieties.

When setting production, quality and marketing goals, some tradeoffs have to be accepted, Duley emphasized. He said highest production is not likely to be paired with top quality and that getting contracts for sale and delivery of small volumes is not easy in Wisconsin.

A brewery in eastern Minnesota buys in lots of 180,000 pounds, Duley reported. A potential buyer in Wisconsin takes semi-loads but does not pay for hauling costs, he added.

Protein protocol

If there's one malting barley trait that brewers want, it's that the protein content of the grain be very close to 11 percent, Duley said. All of the Pinnacle variety plots grown in Buffalo County have met that standard, but others were at 12 percent and a few grown in Chippewa County had protein as high as 14 percent.

Jerry Clark explained that a high protein content results in a reduced extractions during the brewing process and will affect overall beer quality. A protein content of lower than 11 percent indicates a lack of the enzymes that are needed to break down the starch.

Because of the correlation between protein and the amount of nitrogen provided to the plant growing a grain, growing malting barley after a legume crop such as alfalfa is likely to put too much protein in the grain, Duley said.

Nutrient observations

As to how much nitrogen is needed or appropriate, Clark and Duley stated that no firm conclusions have been drawn from the field plots. In 2015, urea was applied on Pinnacle on June 3 in the Chippewa County plot and total per-acre applications of 0, 30, 60, 90 and 120 pounds of nitrogen were made, but the differences between them might have been affected by four episodes of approximately 4 inches of rain during the growing season, Clark said.

In Chippewa County, the yields of 37 to 53 bushels per acre did not directly correspond with those nitrogen applications, while in Buffalo County, 48 to 55 pounds of available nitrogen per acre supported barley yields of 55 to 76 bushels in 2015.

If there is one sure conclusion about nitrogen, it's that some supplementation would be appropriate on sandy or light soils with low organic matter but that striving for yields of 100 bushels per acre with extra supplementation is not a good idea, Clark said.

He suggested adding 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre if the soil's organic matter is less than 2 percent and reducing that amount if the percentage is higher. In many situations, there is likely to a be a natural supply of 25 to 75 pounds of nitrogen per acre, he said.

Regarding phosphorus and potassium, Duley said there is not a high demand by malting barley and suggested there is likely to be a sufficient residual if there is history of livestock manure application on the field. Neither of those nutrients has been added to Buffalo County's plots. For soil pH, 6.2 or higher is appropriate.

Disease concerns

One of the major concerns with growing malting barley is the high risk of fusarium head blight and DON (deoxynivalenol) toxin — either of which could be present without the other, according to the University of Minnesota graduate student Matthew Haas.

Warm and wet weather facilitates the outbreak of the blight, which has bad effects as reducing yield, increasing the nitrogen content and inhibiting protein synthesis, Haas said. Because of the error rate with the ELISA test at elevators, he advised growers to ask for at least two tests on DON, for which buyers generally set a cap of 1 to 2 parts per million. He said the university's lab can perform more precise tests for DON than are typically carried out at grain elevators.

Duley had noted that the risk of head blight is linked with fusarium fungi, which is why malting barley should not follow corn in a crop rotation. Unlike with corn, for which there usually are buyers for any type of quality within reasonable limits, growers of malting barley seldom have a good market if their grain doesn't achieve quality grades.

Preventive practices

Because barley is quite susceptible to blight, growers should bury residue from previous crops, Haas said. He pointed out that Quest, a six-row variety that is popular in Minnesota, has moderate resistance to head blight and added that growing winter barley — though yet lacking traits to withstand a hard spring freeze — is another possibility because it ripens earlier.

Depending on the year's growing environment, it might be necessary to make two separate fungicide applications. Duley said the first one, for which Approach fungicide is a top choice, would be to protect the flag leaf against one or more leaf diseases.

With genetic selection not yet providing an answer to head blight, there are at least 10 fungicides accepted for dealing with the disease, but those in the strobilurin class should not be applied because they can increase the concentration of DON, Haas saud. The fungicides that have proven to be the most effective are Caramba, Prosaro and Proline — all with a 30-day pre-harvest window, he said.

The time window for applying a fungicide lasts for only a few days as the first spikelets emerge following the barley plant's boot stage, Duley stressed. He announced that Headline fungicide would be used in the plots this year.

For harvesting, the barley should not be killed with a herbicide and should be directly combined and, to prevent presprouting, should not be put into a swath for drying, Duley said. Brewers want the malting barley to have a germination rate of at least 95 percent, kernels should be plump and color should be acceptable.

Quality standards

Malting barley should be harvested at 13 to 14 percent moisture and should not have skinned or broken kernels or any shattering, Duley said. The storage facility must be free of fines and of dirt and must keep the barley at 12.5 to 13.5 percent moisture and ideally at below 60 degrees for up to six to nine months.

Potential craft brewery buyers will not accept any barley with DON above 0.6 to 1 part per million, Duley warned. He reported that none of the malting barley grown in the Buffalo County plots would have met the organic production standards for DON.

Financial considerations

Based on a 70-bushel per-acre yield, Duley projected a 2016 potential income of $447 per acre on a bushel price of $5.25 or $377 on a price of $4.25. The income also includes the sales value of the straw. With production costs of $367, he suggested net returns of close to $80 or $30 per acre at those prices — better than what is in prospect per acre for corn and soybeans this year.

In a grower's favor for potential sales is the desire of some craft brewers to buy a malting barley that was grown locally, Duley said. Clark mentioned the possibility of having several nearby growers combine their crop to complete a sale at a volume sought by a buyer. Another challenge is that the grower/seller will have to pay hauling costs in many cases.

The webinar presentation was recorded. It will soon be available through county Extension Service offices, including those in Chippewa, St. Croix, Monroe, Buffalo and Sheboygan counties, which hosted live presentations.

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