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Barley And Hornets – for Oct. 8, 2009

…to say that the ethanol industry has driven barley to unacceptable levels is hardly appropriate if the crop is barely meeting the cost of production.

When you stir up a hornet’s nest, you get stung. It’s a simple lesson most rural youth learn at an early age, but one I was reminded of recently. A rather large colony of hornets had taken up residence on our fuel tanks much to the chagrin of my father and I. Dad had already been bitten on the arm, so when fuelling up the tractor at noon I was being particularly careful to stay in the cab while the tank filled so I wouldn’t agitate our new visitors. This seemed to be an effective plan until I went to hang up the hose, and one very large, very angry hornet flew directly from the bottom of the nest straight to my eye.

I actually thought he had stung my eye when he first hit. This resulted in a short foray of speaking in tongues, several of which should never be repeated. The actual target turned out to be just below my eyebrow. Not as serious, but no less painful. A brief inspection in the rear-view mirror showed that he did draw blood, but no stinger could be seen. I was later informed by my father that hornets don’t leave stingers. Apparently his youth had involved stirring up more hornets’ nests than mine.

Stirring up hornets’ nests seems to have become a habit with me lately. My last tirade on the ethanol-feed grain debate (Don’t Blame Ethanol for Hog Industry Woes, Manitoba Co-operator, Sept. 10, 2009) mentioned the disparity between farm gate and elevator prices, and I’ve been taken to task to clarify that.

As mentioned in the previous story, I produce both barley and hogs, and have at different times over the last 28 years marketed both. As a feed mill customer, there have been occasions when I could sell barley directly to the mill from which I purchase feed additives.

A producer who can deliver to a mill “on account” will typically receive more for his grain than a grain producer who delivers to the elevator off-board feed account. I suspect a number of industrious livestock feeders have managed to “broker” the transaction for their neighbours, but as the number of mills continues to decrease, those opportunities are becoming rarer.

The CWB is often criticized for the low barley prices offered under both the board and domestic off-board feed accounts, but it had the same problem I did. The board couldn’t compete with subsidized American corn. If I couldn’t get more than $4/bu. locally because of the influx of cheap feed, imagine the conundrum the CWB was in when you add in train freight, ocean freight, elevation and marketing costs. It dropped the feed designation on barley and went looking for human consumption markets in Asian countries. Even with the more lucrative markets, the net price is unattractive to most producers in a typical year. So to say that the ethanol industry has driven barley to unacceptable levels is hardly appropriate if the crop is barely meeting the cost of production.

Another reason for mills to seek direct purchasing contracts with producers is for quality specifications. A percentage of the elevator-sourced barley is there because it has been rejected for malt. Malting barley is typically lower in protein and higher in awn content. By dealing with producers who are growing barley for feed for their own herds, the mills can access the varieties being grown for feed specifications instead of rejected malt varieties.

Cheap imported corn may have some advantages for its relative feed value, or to avoid fusarium contamination issues, but I prefer the pork we produce from barley-fed pigs. It is whiter, leaner, and has a milder taste. Barley is an oft overlooked feed source and if I could get my hands on a variety that would give me higher-yielding, high test weight, high-protein, disease-resistant feed, I would grow it in a second. The reason we don’t have those varieties is because nobody pays for the research to get it. But that my friends, is another hornet’s nest. Les McEwan farms near Altamont, Man.

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