Developing Winter Barley as an Alternative Crop to Capture an Emerging Market and Increase Diversification and Sustainability

Final report for ONC21-086

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Department of Agronomy & Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Cody Creech
Department of Agronomy & Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information


Winter barley is a versatile crop with applications ranging from feed and food to beverage manufacturing. The University of Nebraska (UNL) has an active winter barley breeding program and has released several promising varieties. However, adoption and production have been limited due to a lack of market. Recently, a group of interested Nebraska farmers has come to the University of Nebraska expressing the desire to include winter barley into their dryland cropping systems due in part to the consistently high yields of varieties bred by the UNL barley breeding program. They have connected with a regional grain mill to market the grain and identify quality parameters for production. These producers and the grain mill have consulted with Nebraska researchers for guidance on production methods. This research and educational partnership with these growers, grain mill, and Nebraska researchers will identify preferred varieties and production methods to meet the grain quality criteria of the grain mill while also maximizing grain yield. As this project develops beyond this initial effort, other farmers across the region will be brought in to produce barley to meet the market demand. Results will be shared with growers at field days, workshops, and publications.

Project Objectives:

Our objectives to be conducted on-farm with farmer cooperators will be: (1) to evaluate commercially available and experimental winter barley varieties for performance and adaptability to the High Plains region; (2) to determine the optimal seeding population that will enable the crop to maximize yield meet quality parameters; (3) evaluate fertility management options to enhance grain quality; (4) Disseminate research results through field days, extension and peer-reviewed publications, media outlets, and winter research updates to provide farmers with the knowledge and resources necessary to be successful growing winter barley.


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Materials and methods:

Objective 1. Evaluate commercially available winter barley and experimental genotypes being developed in breeding programs for performance and adaptability to the High Plains region. This objective will seek to build upon the work the UNL winter barley breeding program is doing at University research locations to evaluate winter barley under different environments managed by farmers. The opportunity for farmers to see how varieties perform on their own farms under their management will provide them with the needed confidence to commit additional acres to growing a new crop considering much of the breeding work is conducted in higher rainfall areas of Nebraska and Kansas. Weather data will be recorded daily on a nearby weather station.

Objective 2. Determine optimal seeding population that will enable the crop to optimize yield and also meet grain quality parameters. For any crop to be successful, it must yield well to be profitable for the farmer and also must meet grain quality standards to be marketable. Three high yielding varieties identified from previous testing will be seeded at 600,000, 800,000, 1M, 1.2M, and 1.4M seeds per acre using 10-inch row spacing. Grain yield, grain quality data, and milling data will be collected. Ardent Mills has committed to partnering with us to process samples to generate milling and quality data.

Objective 3. Develop fertility recommendations to meet grain yield and quality standards. Nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc will be applied at different timings, rates, and combinations to evaluate fertility impact on grain yield and quality. Using soil tests as a guide, nitrogen will be applied at 25, 50, 75, 100, and 125% in the fall, spring, and as 33/66 fall and spring split application. Phosphorus will be applied in-furrow using the same rates in the fall only. Zinc and sulfur will be also be applied in the fall only at low, normal, and high rates with nitrogen and phosphorus at 75%.

Objective 4. Disseminate research results through field days, extension and peer-reviewed publications, and winter research updates for farmers. Education and outreach efforts will be largely driven by farmers at our field research locations where peer to peer learning can take place and concepts can be observed visually. Further dissemination of data and promotion of results will be done through: timely newspaper articles, extension e-news (CropWatch), social media, fact sheets, presentations at conferences, off-season workshops, and ultimately peer-reviewed journal publications.

Research results and discussion:

Winter barley was seeded in the fall of 2021 and 2022 at three farms of cooperators around western Nebraska to accomplish the objectives of the project. Soil sampling was conducted at each site to guide fertility treatments. Weeds were managed to limit impact on grain yield. In the spring of 2023 and 2024, visual stand ratings and Canapeo measurements were collected. Our site in northeast Colorado did not emerge in 2022 due to drought and was lost.  The other two sites had good growth but was limited by drought conditions later in the spring. The barley seeded in the fall of 2022 winter killed at two locations due to the severe environmental conditions experienced in late December . These conditions were dry soils and -25 degree temps plus additional wind chill. Fortunately, one location did survive and data is being collected. This site will be harvested in July of 2023. Photos and select results are presented in the media file uploaded here: SARE_Barley_Report

Understanding the Results

  • Barley yield responded most to phosphorus or the combination of phosphorus with nitrogen rather than nitrogen alone.
  • Visual differences were observed between plots in stand and heading timing and correlated mostly to increased heading and uniformity in plots that received phosphorus.
  • Nitrogen was an important driver of grain protein content whereas phosphorus was driving grain yield.
  • Many varieties that were tested performed well. About one third should be avoided and are not well adapted to the region.
Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Consultations
4 On-farm demonstrations
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

150 Farmers participated
25 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The project was established in the fall of 2021. Field days and other educational/outreach events occurred in 2022. The High Plains Ag Lab field day hosted in June gave area growers and ag professionals the opportunity to see the research plots and engage with researchers. The plots had visible differences which led to discussion on the importance of fertility to maximize yield and grain quality. Attendees reported significant knowledge gained in PRE and POST testing conducted at the event. Over 100 were in attendance.

Research results were also presented at the 2023 Crop Production Clinics attended by 25. This was an indoor event that uses pictures of plots and tables and figures to illustrate the results.

High Plains Ag Lab research update held in February 2023 was attended by 50 area farmers. Similar to previous events, a lot of interest in the results and questions about growing barley in our environment.

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Although the project is just about to harvest the second year in July 2023, The expectation is the results will support the findings from last year and presented within this report. The primary outcome of this project remains the demonstration to farmers that winter barley can be a viable alternative crop in their rotations. A second field day is scheduled for June 2023 that will be attended by over 100 individuals. The secondary outcome will be production recommendations tailored for the area that will enable farmers to maximize production, reduce inputs and costs, limit risk, and increase profitability. This project has demonstrated the importance of proper variety selection and fertility program to achieve maximum yields and quality. The third outcome has been our successful outreach, programming, and engagement opportunities with area farmers to educate, provide resources, and create networking opportunities for farmers to engage in peer-to-peer learning and interact with industry partners, and answer questions.

Immediate impacts have been measured at field days using pre and post tests showing positive knowledge gained. Reach of social media and published fact sheets and articles will be measured using built-in analytics. Long-term impacts will be measured by adoption of recommendations and continued market stability for pearled winter barley. Acres of winter barley planted, harvested, and marketed can be obtained from USDA-NASS and elevators that receive the grain. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.