BANFF, Alta. — Better yielding and higher paying crops like canola, wheat, oats and durum have displaced barley.
“Farmers are businessmen and they are going to grow crops that have the greatest rate of return. The return on barley is lower than other crops,” David Simbo, research manager for Alberta Barley, said during the commission’s annual meeting held in Banff Dec. 6-7.
Barley is Canada’s fourth largest crop, but in 2017 production was less than eight million tonnes compared to the 2013 harvest of 10.2 million tonnes. It has been in decline for almost two decades.
“This is a really dramatic decline, and I think we need to get to the bottom of why are we seeing a 50 percent reduction in barley acres in Canada,” said consultant Tyler Bjornson.
Alberta grows about half of Canada’s barley crop, and the commission contracted Bjornson to develop a strategy with recommendations to turn the industry’s flagging fortunes around.
The strategy will be analyzed further in January, said commission manager Tom Steve.
“It is really the first time in a number of years we have really taken a critical look at the market opportunity for barley, the challenges for barley and maybe why farmers are choosing to grow other crops,” he said in an interview.
“We have a solid core of farmers who are growing malt varieties and love it. In Alberta it is a major crop, but they are growing under contract to the malt house and they have a good indication their barley is going to go malt.”
Farmers without contracts see the risk in growing malt varieties and the possibility of it ending up as feed with the associated lower price.
On the agronomy side, new high yielding varieties with more disease resistance and improved standability are needed, said Bjornson.
These must be standard traits in all new varieties. Most registered varieties rate as fair.
Other crops have improved yields by 40 percent in the past 10 to 15 years, but barley has lagged. Most of the improvements were achieved without new varieties but with better agronomics and overall improved management.
It is possible to grow 95 bushels to the acre, which should be a standard goal for growers, said Bjornson.
The most common varieties are AC Metcalfe and CDC Copeland. There are higher yielding varieties, and malt companies tend to shy away from trying something new.
Maltsters want consistency and do not want high protein varieties. However, China and the growing craft brewing sector may actually want a higher protein, higher enzyme grain.
At least one high protein variety is expected to be registered by 2028.
More resistance to diseases such as fusarium head blight is needed. Alberta has a zero tolerance approach, which is hindering the ability to stop the growth of this fungus and reduce levels through better management.
Market development is needed if production increases.
An increase in barley production to 13 million tonnes would be absorbed by the domestic feeding market, the malt sector, exports to China and potential customers in Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
The domestic market is the strongest, and the barley sector needs to work with livestock to increase demand and invest in research to reinforce feeding barley to hogs, poultry, beef and dairy cattle.
There may not be big returns, but demand will be steady.
Promoting barley as food is a limited opportunity.
“Food is a good niche market for a few players, but it is highly unlikely food will move the dial for the vast majority of the industry,” Bjornson said.
It may not be a good use of resources to work on markets that never materialize, he said.
“The barley sector has put in an extraordinary amount of work and resources into trying to develop the food market,” he said.
“It has remained niche at this point. I think we need to be careful about spending money and time on markets that aren’t necessarily well defined.”
However, the pet food and ingredients sectors use more than 100,000 tonnes of barley a year, so value adding should not be abandoned, he said.