February 4, 2009
In the 1950s, more than 120,000
acres of Kentucky farmland stood in barley. Today, that number
is down to approximately 10,000 acres. Blame most of the
precipitous drop in acreage on the decrease in demand for barley
over the last 50 years. But now there’s a renewed interest in
the grain, and some producers are beginning to take another look
at the crop.
Demand is beginning to slowly increase, and ethanol might be the
reason. Once producers started diverting corn toward fuel
production, its cost rose for animal feed. As a result,
livestock producers, particularly those raising swine, started
to look at other feed options. Barley is one of those options.
But aside from being used for feed, barley itself is being
sought by some companies as biomass for ethanol production. A
Virginia company, Osage Bio Energy, currently is contracting
with farmers in the Mid-Atlantic States for 300,000 acres of
barley annually. According to their Web site, the company is
developing the first barley-based facility in the Southeast and
Mid-Atlantic regions to produce biofuel and animal feed.
At the University of Kentucky 2009 Winter Wheat Meeting in
Bowling Green, Dan Brann, a retired extension grains specialist
from Virginia Tech and a consultant for Osage Bio Energy,
explained the company’s plans to produce bio ethanol, barley
protein meal and barley fiber pellets, a renewable fuel. He told
the gathering that this was opening up new opportunities to
farmers in the Mid-Atlantic and, if successful, might provide a
market for Kentucky farmers in the future.
“There are many reasons to consider barley for the process over
another biomass crop. One, barley fits really well into the
cropping systems,” he said.
Bill Bruening, coordinator of the Small Grain Variety Testing
Program in the UK College of Agriculture, agrees that barley
could have its advantages in a double-crop system because of the
increased soybean yield that often results.
“Barley can be harvested two weeks prior to wheat,” he said.
“Typically when we get into wheat harvest, it puts us in a
late-planted soybean situation. When you plant soybeans late,
the yields decline.”
Data averaged over many years shows that for every day soybeans
are planted after June 10, farmers can expect yields to drop by
1 to 1.5 percent per day, which translates to about one-half to
three-fourths of a bushel per acre per day.
“Soybeans right now are around $10 a bushel, so you’re talking
about a tremendous amount of money that farmers are losing when
they have to double-crop behind wheat,” Bruening said.
But he also said although the price of barley has increased
somewhat in the past few years, it is always lower than wheat.
“With high input costs, the margin of barley production
profitability is questionable,” he said. “In order for barley’s
potential benefit in a double-crop system to be realized, input
costs must decrease and/or barley price increase. Recent
research has shown that barley yields may be maximized with
substantially less nitrogen fertilizer applied than the
currently recommended rate. This is one way that barley
production input costs can be reduced.”
There are other reasons for farmers to take a good hard look at
all the pros and cons of devoting acreage to barley.
According to Osage’s Web site, approximately 5 million acres in
the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic lie fallow or have non-cash
winter cover crops. From both environmental and economic
standpoints, barley might provide an answer.
“Winter small grains, such as wheat and barley, provide growers
an important source of income during the summer months,”
Bruening said. “Winter cover crops also reduce soil erosion, add
organic matter to the soil and provide moisture conserving
residues. They also reduce ground water contamination by
utilizing residual nitrogen from the previous crop.”
“If we can keep our soybean yield potential maximized by timely
planting, there’s a lot of potential profit for growers there,”
he continued. “If we look at the whole system, barley is ideal
in this respect, and I think growers need to consider that, even
though the price of barley is still low.”
University of Kentucky
College of Agriculture, through its land-grant mission,
reaches across the commonwealth with teaching, research and
extension to enhance the lives of Kentuckians.
By Carol Spence