Overwintered small grains have long been staple cash crops of the Canadian Prairies and U.S. Plains. Traditionally, winter rye, winter wheat, and triticale are the only small grain varieties with sufficient cold tolerance to be viable cash crops. However, recent trials and development of winter barley varieties shows that barley could be added to the list of viable overwintered cash crops. While it would be inaccurate to describe barley demand as “booming” there has been a respectable increase in demand for high-quality, food grade barley for the brewery and distillery market during the past 20 years.
Most barley varieties are spring planted because of poor cold tolerance. Recent trials of three existing winter barley varieties in Minnesota have shown that winter barley varieties are quite cold intolerant, with only one variety having more than 50% winter survivability. The development of a winter barley variety in Ohio shows that winter barley has an extremely narrow optimal seeding window in late September and early October. But if winter barley is seeded into conditions where weeds are kept under control in the fall and early spring, it can compete well with weeds as the growing season progresses. Winter barley’s susceptibility to winter kill make it a poor cash crop candidate for producers north of the 43rd parallel (South Dakota/Nebraska border). However, producers south of the 43rd parallel could turn winter barley into a regular cash crop if operations are able to meet the crop’s extremely stringent fall seeding requirements.
Two-row barley varieties are preferred by brewers and distillers thanks to larger grain size, and more desirable fermentation characteristics related to enzyme and protein content. Six-row barley varieties are typically used in the feed market, although some large breweries still make extensive use of six row varieties. Six row varieties are also used a supplement for specialty brews to add unique flavor characteristics.
Winter barley could be grown as part of a mixed grain intercrop with a winter-hardy pea variety in order to reduce N requirements, help to reduce disease pressure for both crops, and improve mid-to-late season weed control.