Study underway to help farmers produce malting barley for breweries

By on June 17, 2019

Research assistants check on malting barley that is part of a four-year study to determine best nitrogen recommendation levels for quality.
Research assistants check on malting barley that is part of a four-year study to determine best nitrogen recommendation levels for quality.

If NCDA&CS Agronomist Kristin Hicks has her way, in a couple of years North Carolina beer brewers and malting houses will have access to more locally grown malting barley rather than having to source that ingredient from farmers in the Northern United States, Canada or Europe.
Hicks, in collaboration with scientists at N.C. State University, is conducting an agronomic study to determine the best nitrogen application rates to produce the higher quality barley needed for malting. Currently, most North Carolina barley is produced for animal feed, which does not demand the high quality that malting barley requires.
If the study helps provide guidance on the optimal nitrogen rates, it could pay off big for farmers who could see a four to five times larger paycheck for malting barley compared to animal feed. Barley costs are around $2 a bushel for animal feed compared to $8 to $12 a bushel for malting barley, Hicks said.
“We are working to find the optimal nitrogen recommendations, because nitrogen impacts the plumpness of the grain and the protein content, both important measures of quality” Hicks said. “We are looking at eight different nitrogen level treatments and want to develop tissue testing as a predictive test.”

An aerial view of test plots at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.
An aerial view of test plots at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.

This is the second year of the four-year study that has been funded by a $104,695 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Research is being conducted on seven of the state’s research station sites, including the Sandhills, Piedmont, Lower Coastal, Upper Coastal, Oxford, Central Crops, and Mountain Horticultural Crops.
Barley is a winter crop, which means it does not interfere with the planting of soybeans and corn. If barley meets malting standards, it also draws better prices than wheat, which is another popular winter cover crop.
Because the potential payoff could be significant for barley farmers, Hicks said a number of farmers have been experimenting on their own to find the right application rates.

“We started getting questions from regional agronomists about recommendations and growers were having mixed success. We didn’t know what approach to take. Because of the immense variation in the soils and climate across the state, a one-nitrogen-rate-fits-all approach seemed unlikely to succeed,” she said. “Then we realized, why can’t we do for barley what we do with wheat, where we are making recommendations based on the concentration of nitrogen in the plant at a specific growth stage rather than a flat nitrogen rate. The only difference is that we are looking at it not just in terms of yield, but on quality indicators.”
If this study proves successful, we could eliminate that guesswork for farmers and help ensure dependable results for the barley they grow, Hicks said. In turn, that could lead to a new and ready market for North Carolina grown malting barley.

Research assistants work on malting barley test plots at seven research stations across the state.
Research assistants work on malting barley test plots at seven research stations across the state.

North Carolina ranks eighth in the country in number of craft brewers and No. 1 in the Southeast, following a sharp increase in breweries in recent years. “This research will help farmers grow an income producing crop that our local brewers are looking for,” said Bill Teague, chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Many craft brewers are eager to use locally grown products in their brews in response to consumer demand, but malting barley remains a more difficult product to source locally, Hicks said. This study has captured brewers’ interest and the interest of malt houses, she added.
“About 96 percent of malted barley is from out of state. Of the 1.2 million barrels of beer produced in the state, only 40,000 are made with North Carolina grown barley,” Hicks said. “There is definitely room to grow in this market.”

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