Lacombe research centre studies barley

LACOMBE — Most of the world’s best beers start with the world’s best barleys.

Plant pathologist Kelly Turkington examines petri dishes on barley samples in the pathology lab at the Lacombe Research Centre.

Plant pathologist Kelly Turkington examines petri dishes on barley samples in the pathology lab at the Lacombe Research Centre.

LACOMBE — Most of the world’s best beers start with the world’s best barleys.

A team at the Lacombe Research Centre has found some very specific farming practices that can help Prairie farmers capitalize on the premium prices available for that highly prized barley.

Their only regret is that they don’t get to include tests on the final product, said weed scientist John O’Donovan and plant pathologist Kelly Turkington, his partner in the project.

Canadian farmers grow barley for one of two reasons, O’Donovan said while describing the scope of their research and their findings so far.

Some grow barley strictly for livestock feed, he said. The balance — representing 50 to 70 per cent of all barley grown — target the malting industry because of the premium prices paid for barley that meets its requirements. Barley not selected for malt is sold as feed.

On average, only 20 per cent of barley grown for malt actually makes the grade, said O’Donovan. Malting companies need grain that has a fairly low protein content and a high degree of friability, meaning it crumbles more readily during the malting process, he said.

The extensive barley research project now underway at Lacombe looks at improving a grower’s chances of hitting those targets.

What’s unique at Lacombe is that while plant researchers across North America have been working on genetic improvements, O’Donovan and Turkington are focused on farming practices.

They have grown test plots for the past four years at eight sites across the Prairies, with the resulting barley tested by researcher Michael Edney at the Canadian Grain Commission’s lab in Winnipeg.

Although more work is needed, O’Donovan and Turkington have reached some solid conclusions:

• Barley needs to be seeded as early as possible in spring to reach protein and beta-glucan targets. High levels of beta-glucan are associated with poor friability, said O’Donovan.

• An optimum seeding rate of 300 seeds per square metre, producing 200 to 240 plants per square metre, provides the best yields while hitting protein and beta-glucan targets. That rate also produces the most homogenous performance within the crop, said O’Donovan.

• Nitrogen fertilizer needs to be limited, according to the variety of barley used, to produce good yields without increasing protein production in the plant. Working with the two most popular varieties, AC Metcalfe and CDC Copeland, the team found differences in the way each responded to nitrogen. CDC Copeland tends to tolerate more nitrogen than AC Metcalfe, said O’Donovan.

More research is needed on more varieties to help producers find ideal levels of nitrogen to apply on their malt barley crops, he said.

• Crop rotation plays a significant role, with data being gathered on disease resistance and protein performance of barley seeded into three different types of stubble: barley, canola and peas.

Generally, it is assumed that barley must be rotated with other crops to improve yields and disease resistance, said Turkington.

There has also been an assumption that barley seeded into a pea field would produce high levels of protein. However, Turkington has found that it takes two years after a pea crop for the nitrogen to mineralize in the soil, so malting barley can be sown after a pea crop with no adverse affect on protein content.

While weather remains the one factor farmers cannot control, early planting, good crop rotation, judicious use of fertilizers and optimum seeding rates all play a role in giving farmers the best shot at producing the kind of barley the malting plants look for, said Turkington.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com