End of an era: AC Metcalfe loses its grip

New varieties, such as AAC Synergy, CDC Bow and AAC Connect, provide farmers with a 10 to 15 percent yield bump over Metcalfe as well as improved protection from diseases, according to Peter Watts, the managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre. | File photo

The malting barley industry is at a crossroads, says the managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.

AC Metcalfe is releasing its stranglehold on acres, making room for a collection of up-and-coming, higher-yielding new varieties, said Peter Watts.

Western Canadian farmers planted 652,398 acres of Metcalfe in 2019, representing 24 percent of total malt barley acres last year.

That was good for second place behind CDC Copeland’s 1.16 million acres and 44 percent share of the market.

Copeland’s market share is declining as well but not nearly as fast as Metcalfe.

Metcalfe was the top-seeded variety from 2002 through 2016, peaking at 56 percent of the acres in 2010.

But over the past few years it has been giving way to upcoming varieties like AAC Synergy, CDC Bow and AAC Connect.

“It’s a marvelous variety that has served customers of Canadian barley well,” said Watts.

“However, our new varieties have excellent malting and brewing quality characteristics and exhibit significantly improved field performance, including higher yields and better resistance to lodging.”

The new varieties provide farmers with a 10 to 15 percent yield bump over Metcalfe as well as improved protection from diseases, he said.

Jason Skotheim, chair of the Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission, said it will be nice for growers to finally have some other options. Prior to Metcalfe, Harrington had a 20-year run as the dominant variety.

“You do the math on this and we’ve got like five varieties in a century,” he said.

“For the amount of money we’ve been putting into variety development, that’s not good for the industry.”

He hopes the next wave of barley varieties have much shorter periods of dominance.

One new variety that has already made considerable inroads is Synergy, which accounted for 19 percent of malting barley acres in 2019. Connect and Bow each carved out a two percent share of the market.

Skotheim has been eyeing up Bow for his farm near Prince Albert, Sask., but like many growers he is waiting for a market signal before planting any acres.

Contracts for new varieties often contain a price discount compared to Metcalfe. He hopes that is about to change.

Watts said the main bottleneck has been China — maltsters there have been reluctant to move on from Copeland and Metcalfe.

“They are very forgiving (varieties) in terms of processing and they meet the quality characteristics that the end users are (looking) for,” he said.

“We are a little bit of a victim of our own success with these varieties.”

The centre has been working with Chinese maltsters and brewers who are conducting production-scale trials of some of the new varieties.

Containers of Bow and Connect were shipped to Chinese maltsters Supertime Malting and Xingze Malting in 2017 and 2018. The malt was used by Chinese brewing giant Tsingtao Brewery to make beer.

“We’re over the hump now,” said Watts.

“I’m very encouraged by the interest we’re seeing in China in these new varieties.”

The plan was to continue the trials in 2019, but that is proving problematic because Canada lost a lot of malting barley due to the wet harvest.

Skotheim is thrilled Chinese companies appear to be open to using the new varieties.

“Getting some of these brewers to move off of Metcalfe we see as an incredible opportunity for us as growers,” he said.

In the future he hopes there is less of a focus on promoting a specific variety and more of a campaign surrounding Canadian barley in general.

Watts expects commercial volumes of Connect and Bow to be available in 2020 with each variety capturing an estimated four to six percent share of malting barley acres.

Copeland, Metcalfe, Synergy, Connect and Bow have all made the centre’s 2020 recommended varieties list.

Production contracts are recommended for the new varieties, while Copeland and Metcalfe can be grown on spec.

Watts is also excited about CDC Fraser, which is a year or two behind Connect and Bow.

Fraser has a higher protein content and better enzyme package than the other two. It is more like Metcalfe in that respect.

Other promising varieties undergoing seed propagation are Lowe, CDC Copper and CDC Churchill.

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