Malt buyers have been slow to accept new varieties and that’s starting to have a big effect on growers.
Yields are lagging, profits are falling and other crops are starting to look more attractive to growers.
Jill McDonald of SaskBarley wants to see that change. She says varieties need to keep up with the times, and she hopes a value chain spanning task force will help meet that goal.
She pitched this project during the annual Prairie Grain Development Committee meeting in Saskatoon Feb. 27.
Barley yields between 2013 and 2017 rose 32 per cent compared to those in 1998-2002, she told the room, while crops like canola, wheat or oats jumped near or over 50 per cent in the same period.
“Metcalfe and Copland are dominant varieties because they’re a premium variety worldwide,” she said.
However, they’re also the poster children for the trend she was describing. AC Metcalfe was registered 22 years ago, in 1997. Copeland was registered two years later, in 1999.
The roadblock to moving on to new varieties in the malt barley market has always been end-user acceptance. Here there’s some hope on the horizon, McDonald said. “These varieties seem to be looking like they could be the next varieties coming up and they do have better agronomic characteristics and better yield and still meet the demands of our end-users for profile on malting and brewing properties,” she said.
Lowe in particular has been flagged as a possible variety for craft brewers, she said.
Metcalfe and CDC Copeland still dominate 75 per cent of the barley acres in Canada, she said, despite both being older varieties.
According to the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation, both the malting varieties claimed more than double the acreage of any other variety in the province every year since at least 2015, according to figures McDonald presented.
The newly formed task force is looking for “channel captains” from up the value chain to drive variety acceptance and throw support behind large-scale trials for new genetics.
“We need to have end-users involved in this task force,” McDonald said, pointing to systems in place in Australia and Europe.
The variety life cycle in such systems hover from four to seven years, she said.
It is her hope that, that task force will lead to better collaboration all the way from farmers up to maltsters and brewers, faster scale-up of new varieties, and better integration of new genetics, since end-users will be more involved in selection.
“In other markets, there’s a greater level of co-ordination between those ‘channel captains’ at each stage,” she said. “We have a domestic malting industry, we have our export industry and there’s very large players in all of those industries that are dominating. It’s small. There’s only four or five maltsters and there’s four or five line companies and we need all of those organizations to come around a table and work together to help, on a co-ordinated approach, transition for varieties.”
Manitoba breaks the mould
The landscape is different in Manitoba. About 46 per cent of barley grown in 2018 was planted to a malt variety, according to the Canadian Grain Commission, far below Saskatchewan’s 70 per cent of malt barley.
Added to that, Manitoba’s malt selection tends to be small, although numbers have got a boost in the dry growing conditions during the last two years, Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers research manager Lori-Ann Kaminski said.
Instead, feed varieties such as Conlon have dominated Manitoba’s landscape since at least 2014, according to MASC. In 2017, 21 per cent of barley acres in the province were planted to Conlon, while Conlon and CDC Austenson claimed a combined 41 per cent of the 239,900 acres reported to the insurance agency. In comparison, Metcalfe and CDC Copeland combined accounted for only about 15 per cent of acres in 2017.
In terms of age, however, Manitoba’s preferred cultivars are only slightly younger from those to the west. Rights for Conlon were granted in 2004, while the relative newcomer, CDC Austenson, cleared the CFIA in 2010.
“Manitoba is very challenged in terms of acreage for barley,” Kaminski said.
The Canadian Grain Commission says Manitoba accounted for only five per cent of barley acres and six per cent of barley production in Canada last year.
“It’s about the profitability of the crop and being able to have varieties that are accepted that grow well in our conditions,” Kaminski said. “Those need to have a very, very good disease package.”
That’s made growing the widely accepted varieties challenging here potentially limiting acreage.
Manitoba’s wide variety of crop selection hasn’t helped barley acres, she added, as producers may have more options and seek profit elsewhere.
But while malt represents only a small part of Manitoba’s already short barley acres, Kaminski argues that slice is critical for the premium it offers.
The commodity group has been working with breeders to develop varieties more resistant to fusarium head blight, a problem that hits hard on Manitoba’s wetter fields.
“We have varieties that are now starting to show more resistance and all our breeders have been working on that and it is a significant issue and is included in breeding packages,” Kaminski said. “But then to get those varieties accepted for malt is that next step… growers understand that, even if they know about the new variety, if they can’t sell it, it doesn’t matter.”
Manitoba has flagged different incoming varieties, compared to those McDonald identified as being on the rise. Lowe, for example, does not have the disease package Manitobans are looking for, Kaminski said.
The Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers signed on to the task force alongside SaskBarley.
The proposed task force will be up for industry comment in mid-March.