The quality of this year’s malting barley crop will be above average in most parts of Western Canada, according to industry sources, thanks largely to favourable harvest conditions during the first half of September.
“There’s definitely going to be some shiny barley around this year,” said Brent Johnson, a barley grower and Sask Barley board member from Strasbourg, Sask.
“Certainly, quality should be at a fairly high level, just based on the weather that we’ve had in the last few weeks,” added Jason Lenz, chair of the Alberta Barley Commission.
“Over these last three weeks, there’s been lots of barley taken off that’s in pretty good shape.”
For Canadian maltsters, this year’s high-quality harvest will likely result in tighter selection specs than what many producers have been accustomed to lately.
Maltsters generally look for barley with lower protein, in the range of 11 or 12 percent.
Germination is another important selection criteria.
Samples with higher germination are preferred over samples that have lower germination levels and more chitting.
Lenz and Johnson said germination levels in early harvested barley samples should be very good and chit levels are likely to be well below what the industry has seen over the past two years.
This is good news for maltsters, brewers, beer drinkers and malt barley exporters.
But it is likely to cause frustration among growers, especially those who grew malting barley on spec this year.
Growers who didn’t sign production contracts could be forced to sell a lot of high-quality barley into lower value feed markets.
“I think the feed market is where most of this crop will end up,” said Brent Johnson.
If you’re growing malting barley without a contract in a year like this, “it doesn’t really matter whether you have good barley or not, they are still only going to select about 25 percent of what’s grown.
“That’s (roughly) … where the market demand is for malting barley in Western Canada.”
Some growers may consider holding high quality barley in storage until next year but there are risks associated with that. Barley is bulky and requires significant storage space.
In addition, germination levels can decline significantly if barley is stored over a prolonged period.
Barley producers in Western Canada often express frustration over malting barley selection specs that can change dramatically from one year to the next.
Last year, for example, poor weather during harvest time meant that much of the barley crop was of relatively low quality.
Discolouration and chitting was common in last year’s crop, much of which came off between rains or relatively late in the harvest season.
This year is a different story, Lenz said. A lot of barley in key production areas came off relatively early and early-harvested bushels look to be in excellent shape.
“I’d say the maltsters are going to have a smile on their faces this year, for sure,” Lenz said.
“I know that there’s definitely going to be better quality coming off this year compared to the last two years….”
Although selection specs are expected to be as tight as they’ve been for years, growers can find some solace in news that the price spread between feed and malt is lower than normal.
In a usual year, the spread be-tween feed and malt is about $2 per bushel, depending on demand from the feed sector.
Nevertheless, frustration over malt specs that change dramatically from one year to the next are a key reason cited by the Canadian barley industry for an overall steady acreage decline.
Many growers are unwilling to deal with the financial risks associated with chasing malt barley premiums and ultimately having to settle for feed barley prices.
The Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) has initiated programs aimed at ex-panding exports of finished malt and unfinished malting barley.
China is a key market for the Canadian industry, where domestic beer production doubled be-tween 2002-11.
China’s three largest breweries — Snow, Tsingtao and Yanjing —account for about 10 percent of global beer output each year.
Australia is the largest supplier of malt barley to China but Canadian malt or malt barley is often blended with barley sourced from other countries to achieve a higher overall standard of production.