Nebraska’s growers are struggling to integrate sustainable cropping systems vs. the customary corn and soybean systems. Primarily because of economic and climate constraints, rotations have not changed. Through new crops like malted barley, we will determine the profitability and foster ties to local brewers.
We will explore the viability of malted barley production. Expanding the crop diversity with barley will impact soil biology, increase unique residue covers and enhance soil resiliency. It will also allow double cropping through legumes or grazing cover crops.
Malted barley potentially offers additional sustainability to local markets. Maltsters and brewers (NE Hops and the Boiler Pressroom Brewery; see attachments) have expressed interest in locally sourced ingredients.
Winter barley production in Nebraska has been unreliable primarily because of winter kill. Dr. Stephen Baenziger’s research, University of NE-Lincoln, is demonstrating initial success with barley production. He is introducing new and hardier varieties that are adapted to our climate. We will compare forms of nutrients and examine interplay with soil temperature, moisture and surface air temperature as well as determine if the barley meets brewers’ specifications.
Starting with the initial grower kick off meeting a primary concern regarding marketing and direct sales was identified by all four participating growers. Unlike the customary row crops for the region, the sales market was limited to direct sales to malteries, craft breweries, and home brewers for grain that meets malting quality standards. The concern was even greater for sales and use of grain that did not make quality standards.
A blog was set up in the first month to describe the project and gradually introduce the objectives with detail. Initially, interest in the project was positive especially from restaurant and craft brewers. But it was easy to see there would be challenges with establishing a grower/buyer community.
An additional challenge was identified concerning marketing within the first few months of the project. The group of growers did not have dedicated resources for marketing and advertising. While the blog generated limited interest and was received well, it was more science based and didn’t seem to appeal to customers. Also, the cost of having a marketer appeared to exceed the potential gain.
Prior to planting the first winter barley crop, some growers raised concerns about storage. With a limited market, the purchasers did not provide substantial storage and growers could not justify taking up commodity crop bin storage for the barley. This would require using 60,000-80,000 bushel bins to store 1,200 bushels of barley.
Additionally, the purchasing market is still an emerging start-up business. This local industry cannot manage risk at this point to enter into multiple guarantee contracts. The growers were tasked with developing and investigating additional markets to ensure a buyer after harvest.
All growers had a difficult time getting their first year crop planted. Excessive moisture at the time of corn and bean harvest delayed getting the fields open for planting. Half of Volkmer’s trial was planted in September, Volkmer’s remainder, Brehm, and McDonald didn’t get planting complete until late October. Othmer was extremely delayed and didn’t plant until 15 November. All October plantings germinated within 2 weeks. Snow covered Othmers before it could be checked for germination.
An effort was made to clean, hull, and grind barley for use in restaurants. We were moderately successful in hulling the barley with hand equipment, but grinding for flour was not successful. The moisture content appeared to be too high and overheated and clogged small commercial grinders. The labor required to hull the barley took about two hours to produce 5 pounds of clean, hulled grain. With our current resources, we have determined that processing the grain for culinary use can only be done as an novelty or as part of the outreach effort.
Outreach efforts in the first year have fallen flat. We anticipated, based on discussions with brewers and industry representatives at conferences, there would be interest from local malters and home brewers in local grain. We have made multiple attempts to contact the target audience for this grant and have not received responses back.
The first year’s outreach is limited to the project blog.
- Determine if winter malted barley is viable to crop rotations in Nebraska and is economically sustainable.
- Examine the impact of prior crop rotations upon the physical, biological and chemical properties of the soil and weather resiliency
- Assess the impact of barley upon soil and air temperature and soil moisture.
- Compare nutrients and identify the fertility requirements for Nebraska’s soils that meet barley brewing standards.
- Determine if malted barley can be grown to meet the six brewing standards (Michigan Barley Testing Lab).
- Establish a network and contact list for barley producers with the brewing industry.
The results for this project will be measured after this reporting period due to the growth characteristics of winter barley. We will measure survivability once the plants break dormancy in the spring.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Primary means of outreach is a blog, Big N Barley Men. The site catalogs an experiment growing and evaluating the viability of winter malted barley production in Southeast Nebraska. We will introduce you to some Big N Barley Men: those who are growing barley through sustainable ag practices, scientists breeding barley for Nebraskans, agronomists monitoring fertility and quality, and the maltsters and craft brewers utilizing the barley. Outreach measurement is through site traffic.
Secondary means of Outreach has been through the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society List serve. Farmers have independently requested assistance with growing and marketing barley through this site.
Rigg and McDonald are scheduled to be presenters at the Nebraska Climate Summit on 21 March in Lincoln, NE.
Seeding rates for winter barley
Direct Marketing Constraints
The primary outcome recognized int he first year is the use of weather stations to evaluate residue management practices. By having local data on farms and with farmers other growers recognize, we hope to relate our data to other research and continue to promote sustainable soil health practices.