Delayed variety buy-in vexes barley growers

The barley industry is faced with a conundrum as it rolls out its new action plan for growth.

It wants farmers to plant more barley, which will happen only if they are seeding the newest, most agronomically advanced varieties.

But maltsters and brewers are demanding older, familiar varieties such as CDC Copeland and AC Metcalfe.

So farmers continue to grow the older varieties and barley continues to lose ground to other crops. Acres are about half of what they were at the start of this century for a number of reasons.

CDC Copeland accounted for 48 percent of insured designated barley acres in 2017 followed by AC Metcalfe at 32 percent, for a combined 80 percent market share.

Barley producers want to work with maltsters and brewers to get them to embrace newer, higher-yielding varieties such as AAC Synergy, CDC Bow and AAC Connect.

“It’s more than higher yields,” said Jason Lenz, chair of Alberta Barley.

“It’s better disease resistance and plumper kernels. They’re a better plant than the ones we’ve had in the past.”

Kevin Sich, supply chain director for Rahr Malting, said maltsters and brewers are aware of the issue.

“It’s on everybody’s mind.”

But the new varieties need to offer more than just agronomic advantages.

“If it shows value in the field but it doesn’t show value to the maltster or the brewer, it ain’t going to go anywhere,” said Sich.

He said you can’t push new varieties on big brewers that have been using the same variety for 20 years.

“It’s like Coca-Cola Classic. It has to taste the same. It can’t taste better.”

Sich said barley breeders have their work cut out for them because farmers, maltsters and brewers all have their wish lists. For maltsters, it is consistency of performance. For brewers it is all about taste.

Synergy is a good example of a new variety that seems to tick all the boxes.

“It’s a big part of our portfolio here right now. We use a lot of it,” said Sich.

Lenz said Synergy yielded close to 10 percent more than the check varieties when it was going through the registration process.

“That’s showing up in the field as well. It’s consistently a high-yielder,” he said.

Bow has superior straw strength and standability.

“(Bow) does stand up as well as some of these semi-dwarf wheats that we enjoy growing.”

He called Connect the “full meal deal” with good standability and yields approaching Synergy.

The barley industry has set a goal in its Getting-to-Growth action plan of having variety turnover every three to five years at malt plants.

“As we go a little further down this road we’re finding it’s more likely going to be closer to the five-year period for turnover,” said Lenz.

Chinese buyers have made it clear they are not interested in having variety turnover any more frequently than every five years.

China accounts for 75 percent of the world trade in malting barley, importing 1.5 million tonnes from Canada in 2017-18 worth $450 million. China primarily buys Metcalfe and Copeland.

That is part of the reason why the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre hosted 15 representatives from six of China’s largest malting and brewing companies in August.

The tour included familiarizing buyers with Synergy, Bow and Connect to encourage them to test and buy the newer varieties.

Sich said convincing an overseas maltster to switch varieties takes time.

“They’re not just going to take a vessel load of a certain variety without ever testing it. You’re sending over two-pound samples to start. This is a process,” he said.

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