Barley is a versatile crop. Its grain and hay are used to feed livestock, and humans enjoy it as a nourishing, heart-healthy food. But most American-grown barley – about three out of every four bushels – is malted for beverage making.
In 2014, Montana planted and harvested more barley acres than any other state. The increase came as barley farmers in other states switched to corn and soybeans.
“Malt barley prices have been competitive with other small grains, and barley is a good rotation for Montana wheat and sugar beets,” says Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
Barley also fits into crop rotations after peas – and is relatively drought-tolerant, adapted to both dryland and irrigated fields. Happily, Montana’s climate is conducive to producing the high-quality barley that is demanded by maltsters and brewers.
“We have very cold nights, allowing barley to rest after hot days,” says Mark Black of Malteurop, which operates a state-of-the-art malting facility in Great Falls. “And because of the cool,
dry climate, there is not pressure from many barley diseases.”
Malt barley also requires less nitrogen fertilizer when compared with some other crops, like wheat.
Seed varieties developed to thrive in Montana have also fed the acreage increase.
“You’re looking for barley that is high-yielding with plump kernels and low protein,” Black says.
Malt barley varieties have cell walls that open up more easily than non-malting varieties, allowing the barley to take up water.
Montana State University also develops new malt barley varieties; the latest is ‘Hockett’, released in 2008. “Hockett is a high-yielding, agronomically attractive barley,” Black says. “It is combined with proprietary varieties in different beer recipes.”
“Malting companies and growers have built business relationships that benefit both parties,” says Dave Tweet, consultant to the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee. “They work together to find the best variety for each growing area and share good agronomic practices that help assure a good crop at harvest.”
The long-term industry presence has both helped older growers expand and attracted new growers.
“Several maltsters and brewers have recently expanded their presence here, building infrastructure that supports efficiencies and interest in growing the crop,” Raska says.
Tweet notes that harvest requires perfect timing and careful handling.
“Malting barley needs to be harvested when kernel moistures fall into the 13-percent range, and the stored grain cooled with aeration fans,” he says. “The malting process requires each kernel to germinate quickly and uniformly, so swiftly harvesting the crop and having proper bin storage is critical.”
Most malt barley production occurs by contract agreements made between farmers and malt barley buyers before planting. Black says malt barley buyers have to offer attractive prices to Montana farmers. “The value is there for the farmer to raise it,” he says. “Contract prices are set to be highly competitive against other crops.”
Return per acre on malt barley is either the top or second-highest return on the farms of contract barley growers, Black says.
Competitive prices are important to keep the state’s malt barley production up, as farmers may look at newer varieties of corn and soybeans bred for northern climates.
“Maltsters and brewers have to continue to offer competitive prices so Montana growers see value in continuing to grow the crop,” Raska says.
One consumer trend that might help sustain malt barley demand: more microbrew interest. While large brewers report flat U.S. beer sales, microbrew consumption is up.
That’s good for Montana growers, Tweet says, as microbrews use more malted barley per barrel, helping keep the demand up for high-quality Montana malting barley.