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Barley could be valuable for soybean, ethanol producers

Kentucky Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — About the only time most people hear the word “barley” is in a beer commercial, but the time could be right for the grain to make a comeback – and it has nothing to do with a brewery.

Bill Bruening, coordinator of the Small Grain Variety Testing Program in the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, said increasing the acreage of barley here could be valuable for many reasons.

“Barley is a winter crop and it’s an important part of our double-crop system in Kentucky. Most of our double-crop acreage is grown in a corn-wheat-soybean rotation. What the winter cover crops give us are control of soil erosion and the taking up of some residual nitrogen in the soil to protect our groundwater,“ he said. “It also gives farmers a source of income in the summer.”

According to information from UK, data averaged over many years shows that for every day soybeans are planted after June 10, farmers can expect yields to drop by 1-1.5 percent per day, which translates to about one-half to three-fourths of a bushel per acre per day.

“Soybeans right now are around $10 a bushel, so you’re talking about a tremendous amount of money that farmers are losing when they have to double-crop behind wheat,” Bruening said.
That alone is good enough reason to plant barley even though the price is lower than its wheat counterpart. But if input costs can be controlled, the crop takes on new value. “In order for barley’s potential benefit in a double-crop system to be realized, input costs must decrease and/or barley price increase. Recent research has shown that barley yields may be maximized with substantially less nitrogen fertilizer applied than the currently recommended rate. This is one way that barley production input costs can be reduced,” said Bruening.

His research has found barley crops can use as much as 30 percent less nitrogen fertilizer than current recommendations. Barley is harvested about two weeks before wheat, which makes it important to double-crop producers, he added. That extra couple of weeks is vital to soybean producers.

The problem with wheat is it is an intensive crop to manage, making it more expensive to raise. It also is harvested in middle to late June and most soybean growers want to plant by the end of May, according to Bruening. That has prompted many wheat producers to give up the crop. The last couple of years have been plagued with drought conditions adding to the hardship of late season beans.

During the 1950s Kentucky producers raised more than 120,000 acres of barley. Today, that has dwindled significantly, to approximately 10,000 acres. USDA data show that last year just over 8 million acres of barley were planted in the U.S., yielding about 240 million bushels.

But Bruening sees opportunity for a comeback. New varieties are helping to increase those numbers, particularly a hull-less line. That type sheds its hull in the field, making it a more high energy grain farmers would want for feedstock. The ethanol industry has also shown marked increases in interest in this type of barley.
The idea of using hull-less barley for fuel is not new. Although it is not quite as productive as corn when it comes to ethanol production, it is close, according to Bruening.

“We hope these new varieties will catch on and there will be a demand for it, and we’ll get better prices for barley. That will be key to increasing acreage,” he said.

A Virginia company, Osage Bio Energy, is creating a demand for the grain by contracting with farmers in Mid-Atlantic states for 300,000 acres annually, as it develops the first barley-based facility in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions to produce biofuel and animal feed. This could also open opportunities for Kentucky producers. Regardless of whether farmers would plant barley to better their double-crop beans or for ethanol purposes, the opportunities are there.

“If we can keep our soybean yield potential maximized by timely planting, there’s a lot of potential profit for growers there,” Bruening said. “If we look at the whole system, barley is ideal in this respect, and I think growers need to consider that even though the price of barley is still low.”