Barley might be bouncing back from its recent doldrums

This could be the year of the big barley bounce back.

It’s too early to tell if farmers were telling the truth to Statistics Canada about their seeding intentions, and weather can always throw honest intentions into a blender and puree them into an ugly mess, but as of early spring farmers said they were intending to see about 300,000 acres more barley this year.

That would be nice to see because it’s a crop ideally suited for Western Canada, supports our livestock industries, makes beer and is a handy option to have in farmers’ back pockets.

The crop has been on a long depressing grind, falling from farmer favourite to pariah as its returns lag compared to almost everything else.

However, the profitability math is better this year.

A couple of analysts I spoke with expect barley acres to actually increase more than farmers were saying, with this year’s profitability, late spring and dry soils making it seem a great bet.

“It’s starting to work from a price standpoint and a yield standpoint,” said Jim Beusekom of Market Place Commodities, which obtains barley for Alberta’s cattle feeding industry.

“We should be able to grow these acres even more in 2019.”

Farmers’ shunning of barley has made sense. Weak yield gains and poor prices just didn’t add up to anything enticing for farmers, so its main role for many was as a rotation crop or for the sake of diversification.

However, southern Alberta prices have risen to about $250 per tonne, which is much better than the $160 at this time last year. New crop can also be locked in at about $210, which is less than current but still $50 better than last year.

I’m happy to see the barley acreage trend reverse because it’s one of the crops that naturally does well on the cold, short-season Prairies. People have been very excited about soybeans in recent years and canola’s empire just keeps expanding, but tough cereal crops like barley and oats can form a pretty stiff backbone for a farm if inclement weather hits and crops are hard to manage.

If barley acres do expand more than expected, it will probably come at the expense of spring wheat acres, which farmers are also planning to boost. Spring wheat worked out well last year and with dry soil and a late spring, it looks like a good bet again this year.

However, that lateness and dryness favours barley even more, especially if anything further delays spring seeding.

It’s clear farmers are hyper-conscious of the field conditions this year, as Brian Voth of Intellifarm mentioned to me after he looked at the Statistics Canada report. That would explain why people think they will back away from money-making canola while boosting spring wheat and barley, as well as cutting lentil and pea acres less than many expected.

“It could be an indication that farmers are looking not so much at the economic side of things, but more at the weather and the forecast,” said Voth.

That means the actual acreage seeded this spring will be tougher to peg than in most years, but however the weather develops, nothing is likely to see barley slip back into decline this year.

Barley’s back.

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