Strong prices prompt recovery in barley acres

New crop barley prices reached more than $5 a bushel this year, prompting many growers to add it to their rotations. | File photo

Analysts think some acres were lost to canola this spring, but seeded area for the crop still higher than it has been for years

Barley acres in Canada will top eight million in 2021, the first time barley has reached that level since 2009.

Statistics Canada, in its June forecast, pegged Canadian barley acres at 8.3 million. That’s up 10 percent from last year and an increase of 45 percent from 2017, when acres sank to a low of 5.7 million.

Farmers who haven’t grown barley for years gave the crop another try this spring, said Zenneth Faye, president of Barley Council of Canada.

“This year (barley) hit that magic number — the $5 plus (per bushel) for new crop,” said Faye, who farms near West Bend, Sask. “For a lot of years, the barley market has been around $3 (per bu.).”

The strong prices convinced farmers to return to barley or expand their acreage in 2021, but the crop didn’t quite reach its expected level. In March, Statistics Canada projected barley acreage at 8.6 million.

“It looks like some of that barley area snuck into canola,” said Bruce Burnett, director of markets and weather information for Glacier MarketsFarm.

It’s not easy to compete with canola prices at $15-$18 per bu., but some farmers stuck with barley this spring for agronomic reasons. Diseases like blackleg and clubroot have become problematic on thousands of canola fields in Western Canada because some farmers have been seeding the oilseed every second year.

“The canola rotations over the years have been tightening up,” Faye said.

“People are starting to realize that’s not a good thing. They needed to put something in their crop mix that would allow them a profit … and get the (canola) disease cycle under control.”

Growing a crop for rotational reasons is one thing, but price is likely the major factor behind barley’s expansion in 2021. Demand for Canadian feed barley has skyrocketed during the 2020-21 crop year, which has sustained high prices in Western Canada:

  • From August to April, Canada exported 3.05 million tonnes of barley to China.
  • In the entire 2019-20 crop year, Canada exported 1.47 million tonnes to China.

Almost all barley exports are destined for China. Japan has received 100,000 tonnes of Canadian barley since August.

Sales of barley to China are booming for a couple of reasons. Last year, China imposed an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley and in September it banned barley imports from Australia’s largest exporter — CBH Grain.

Many trade analysts believe China is using the barley tariff to punish Australia’s government, which has called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well, Chinese buyers are looking for non-corn feedgrains such as barley, wheat and sorghum.

Reuters reported in April that China is trying to reduce its dependence on imported corn and soybeans by encouraging Chinese hog farmers to use alternative sources of feed.

“The (agriculture) ministry said rice, cassava, rice bran, barley and sorghum were also suitable alternatives to corn,” Reuters said. “While rapeseed meal, cottonseed meal, peanut meal, sunflower meal, dried distillers grain, palm meal, flax meal, sesame meal and corn processing byproducts were good options to replace soymeal.”

Even with the shift away from corn, China is expected to import 28 million tonnes of corn in the 2020-21 crop year.

It will be difficult to replace the volume of corn with barley and other feeds, but Chinese interest in feed barley could be attributed (in part) to Canadian promotional campaigns.

“There’s been a lot of work done by the barley council … and with the industry, working on increasing the usage of barley in China,” Faye said.

It’s possible Chinese imports of Canadian barley will remain strong, even if China and Australia resolve their trade spat.

“Before last year (when China imposed a tariff on Australian barley) our barley exports were increasing,” Burnett said.

“(But) I think there is some debate, in terms of where China is going with their feedgrains. How much feedgrain (will) they be trying to import?”

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