Crop Establishment Is Key to Making Malt

March 14, 2018

With only about 25 percent of barley accepted for malt, growers have little room for management error.

Weather plays a huge role, but crop establishment decisions – from variety and field selection to seeding date and target plant populations – can make or break the crop before the seed hits the soil, says Jack Payne, Farmers Edge operations coordinator based in Olds, Alberta.

Payne says selecting the right varieties is the first decision growers need to make. To make the best choice, Payne recommends contacting maltsters and asking them for their top choices. Checking with neighbouring farmers to see what works for them and consulting the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre website for recommendations are good ideas.

Think agronomics when selecting varieties

Varieties also have to measure up agronomically. “Does the variety or varieties meet your needs for maturity, lodging and disease resistance? Do they have good agronomic ratings?” asks Payne. He says it’s also important to note that barley diseases can vary across regions. “In Alberta, for example, net blotch and scald are major diseases, yet when you get into Saskatchewan, scald isn't as much of an issue, so a good-performing variety in one province or region may not be the ideal in another.”

What about yield? It’s great but it’s further down the priority list, says Payne. High yields are nice, but if you’re growing a variety that maltsters don’t want, or you have disease problems and it knocks down quality, you’re just growing feed barley.”

When it comes to field selection, Payne says it’s important to pick a clean field for malt crops. Growers also need to consider previous crops. Seeding malt barley into canola stubble is a wise idea – a cereal after a broadleaf crop is always a smart choice for disease management. Following grass forages such as timothy is another good decision, but growers need to be wary when seeding into alfalfa, which can tap the soil’s moisture reserves and leave your malt crop thirsty in a dry year.

Early planting pays dividends

Growers should also think soil type when making field decisions, especially after a dry year. In this case, it’s important to target fields with soils that have good moisture-holding capacity – target the clay loams and steer clear of the sands, says Payne.

When should growers seed malt barley? The answer is simple: “yield, kernel plumpness and protein are always better when you seed as early as possible,” says Payne. But the definition of early changes depending on where you farm. “In Southern Alberta, early might be mid to late April, but in Central Alberta an early seeding date would be the first week of May.” Payne would rather rely on soil temperatures to determine seeding dates. “Barley can germinate at 3°C but I like to stick to 5°C, because the warmer the soil, the faster the crop gets out of the ground, and that's really what you want.”

Plant populations depend on where you farm

Payne’s final consideration for crop establishment is target plant populations. He says the benchmark target is 300 seeds per square metre, but that will vary depending on where you farm. In hot and dry areas, targets should be lowered to 250 or even as low as 200.

“If you're in Southern Saskatchewan or Southern Alberta, areas that are a little bit drier, you actually want fewer plants because there's less water resources for each plant,” Payne explains.  “If you have a higher plant population, you actually increase the competition between the barley plants. That could drive down yield and kernel plumpness and you may not get a malt grade.”

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