Malting barley falls out of favour

Manitoba farmers can’t find a good reason to grow malting barley, which has crippled acreage on the eastern Prairies.

“The only interest I have is from contrarians, people who say, ‘does anybody grow malt barley? No, well maybe I will because I’ll be the only guy in the room who has any to sell,’ ” Manitoba seed grower Eric McLean said during Keystone Agricultural Producers’ annual meeting.

“I’m sitting on a pile of barley from last year.”

McLean said barley buyers need to make barley seem worthwhile to farmers or they won’t keep growing it.

“Barley has to be worth seven bucks a bushel, with no discounts, and then guys will start to grow it,” he said, drawing chuckles and nods from farmers at the KAP convention.

“Not $5.25 or $5.75, with only 20 percent (taken) and ‘oh, we won’t take the rest of it.’ ”

McLean said farmers in Saskatchewan and Alberta are able to get better yields, but malting barley has become an unattractive acreage choice in Manitoba.

Rob McCaig, managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, said malting barley growers are in a particularly bad position in Manitoba because few brewers use six-row varieties and the new varieties aren’t liked by Anheuser Busch, the one big international six-row buyer.

However, he also acknowledged the problems with the present specifications-based buying system, which often includes discounting and limited demand for supplies.

“We’re getting to a point now with malting barley where demand and supply are getting really tight and the price is going to have to go up,” said McCaig.

“The maltsters and brewers have squeezed the farmer enough, acres are coming out all over the world and the opportunity is there for us to progress.”

He said contract growing is likely to replace the current practice of growing malting barley and then putting it forward for selection by buyers.

“There will be a closer arrangement between brewers, maltsters and the producer.”

Unhappiness with malting barley is rife among farmers across the Prairies.

“It’s a total crapshoot,” farmer Jeff Elder said in response to a Western Producer question on Twitter.

“Pick the malt variety that best meets feed specs and hope the maltsters are hungry right off the combine. If it doesn’t move, start making plans for feed.”

Farmer Geoffrey Hewson said: “We used to grow it as contrarians … which is a lousy reason to grow a crop.”

Adviser Brian Voth of Agri-Trend Marketing tweeted: “Lots of guys just giving up because specs are too tight. Rather put down the N and go for yield instead as feed.”

The old and still prevalent non-contracting system worked well for the brewing industry when farmers had fewer good crop options. However, farmers don’t need to use malting barley to have a chance at a premium crop now that canola is highly profitable, feed barley is valuable and corn and soybeans are gobbling up acreage in the eastern Prairies and beginning to move west.

McLean said he hopes the industry finds a way to persuade farmers to grow malting barley again because the present trend is for it to disappear from Manitoba.

“Malt collection facilities will have to be mothballed or else they’re going to spend a lot of money on trucks moving it in from Saskatchewan,” said McLean.

“I’d love to see this thing get to the point where barley really can be a Cinderella crop.”

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