Can growing malting barley be profitable in New York State?

CEW-MR-2-Malting Barley6by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

Despite thunderstorms with continuous lightning and torrential downpours, nearly 40 people traveled to Bob and Andy Crowe’s Inverness Farm near Ames, NY, to take part in a Malting Barley Field Day and Workshop presented by Cornell University and CCE of Central New York.

The workshop featured speakers Plant Pathologist Dr. Gary Bergstrom, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology of Cornell University; Research Support Specialist David Benscher, Small Grains Breeding & Genetics Project of Cornell University and Central NY CCE Regional Field Crop Specialist Kevin Ganoe.

Test plots for growing a variety of malting barley have been developed across New York State by Cornell agronomists and results from these plots are now available. Twenty-two winter malting barley varieties and 20 spring malting barley varieties, in various stages of growth, were displayed at Inverness Farm.

Two critical issues to successful malting barley production were discussed at the meeting: variety selection and disease management.

Benscher reported that two available varieties have better yields than others.

“Quality scores are sent back using the same standards that are used every year. In the spring the top quality producer was “Conlon” and in the winter it was “Charles.” Benscher reminded attendees that data from one-year trials are inconclusive and Cornell bases their final ratings on three-year trials whenever possible.

“Final quality depends on the maltster and how they handle it,” Benscher said. “You want uniform size and uniform germination. You don’t want half of them germinate.”

Color, percent of extractions and protein are barley components evaluated by breweries. “Protein — that’s critical,” Benscher confirmed. “The lower the protein, the better!”
Bergstrom reported on the most critical factor in growing malting barley.

“The single most critical disease issue for the future of barley malt in New York State is Fusarium head blight. Fusarium head blight is endemic in our humid New York agricultural environments.”

Recognized by its salmon pink color, Fusarium-infected grains are contaminated with mycotoxins, especially deoxynivalenol (DON) or vomitoxin, thrives in humidity and spreads quickly.

“If you ingest even a very small amount of it, you will have a very unpleasant day!” Bergstrom emphasized. “In this humid environment, the fungus grows very well. The biggest risk factor is when there is leaf wetness for a day or two at the time when the barley has come out of the boot, when those heads first emerge. If the next couple of days are wet or a combination of rain and humidity — that’s the biggest, biggest threat for infection!” Bergstrom stressed.
Bergstrom reported that choosing a variety best adapted to the New York State environment is the first line of defense. “There is no such thing as a highly resistant barley variety — it doesn’t exist. Some varieties have a moderate or low level of resistance. Those are the ones to focus on. But, if we get 3 or 4 days of bad, wet weather, we’re still going to get Fusarium head blight!”

Malt houses will not purchase grain that tests at more than a mere trace or 1 part per million of Fusarium. Toxins can currently be measured in parts per billion.

Bergstrom stated cultural practices are the next step in producing a productive crop. “This fungus is the same one that causes stalk rot on corn. It’s in the air,” He explained. “So, don’t plant in corn stubble or following corn!”

He also cautioned that Fusarium could live in vegetable stubble, therefore, rotating malting barley with vegetable crops can be futile. “That’s the main way this fungus makes it through the winter for the next growing season — especially in corn stalks. It multiplies tremendously on corn stalks.”

Spores are ejected into air currents, traveling and causing a “neighborhood effect”.

“Be careful about your rotations and get the best resistance that you can — knowing that it is imperfect,” Bergstrom advises. “If you are able to use fungicides, there’s a pretty narrow window of opportunity of the time that those heads are fully emerged. You’ve got about 5 or 6 days at the most to get a protective spray on those emerged heads.”

Bergstrom said that past experience shows a 40-45 percent of reduction in toxins by using fungicide spray. Another 40 percent reduction in risk is possible by using partially resistant seed. Adhering to cultural practices may provide another 20 percent reduction.

Due to issues with raising malting barley in New York State’s humid environment, breeding programs are needed to develop more resistant varieties. However, both Bergstrom and Benscher admitted that there are currently no breeding programs in New York State.

“In 10 years we’re supposed to have all of the ideal varieties and there’s no breeding going on in New York,” Benscher stated. However, other states, including Minnesota, do have good barley breeding programs.

Bergstrom stated that since no other state has the identical environmental conditions matching New York State, out-of-state breeding programs can’t produce the required seed.

In June, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced an initiative supporting wineries and breweries in NYS, promising $350,000 in funding to research hops and malting barley. This funding may help boost breeding programs in the state.

Dietrich Gehring of Indian Ladder Farm, Altamont, NY, said craft brewers are experimenting with malting rye and oats. “From the brewer’s stand point, if we could even find a rye that we could grow, if they can make that one beer to keep their license, they will buy the malted rye.”

Benscher reported on varieties of white winter wheat have been successfully grown and rated with high quality values for malting and distilling. Notably, a hybrid rye developed in Germany has been successfully trialed by Cornell. “All of the hybrid rye out yielded the regular rye by almost 3 to 1,” Benscher stated. “Not only that, but the top yielding hybrid rye nearly doubled the yield of our wheat — and that is amazing!”

Benscher said he did not know what the quality of the hybrid rye was for flavor, but that it has multiple uses in Europe. “The catch is, it’s expensive compared to the rye you’re buying, but the trade-off is the incredible yield.”

“The latest innovation is the hybrid rye, which was developed and has been grown primarily in Europe,” said John Uveges of Seedway. “We are working on being able to bring it to the market here.”

Ganoe says in spite of the issues there continues to be a great interest in growing malting barley in our area and Scott O’Mara of Canastota, NY agrees. O’Mara’s have been growing malting barley since 2012.

“While growing malting barley may not be easy and will require extra management and processing, there is certainly plenty of demand for New York malted barley,” said O’Mara. “It may take several years to develop as a viable crop for New York farms, but there is a definite opportunity for farmers to fill a market demand, created in large part due to the Farm Brewery Legislation and the ever-growing interest in locally sourced products.”

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