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Winter Malting Barley - a growing interest

There is a growing interest in winter malting barley in Ireland. Eoin Lyons, Teagasc /Boormalt Joint Programme Advisor, discusses the expansion of the crop. He takes us through the trial work and developments to date, the varieties grown and the future prospects of this "new to Ireland" crop

Autumn-drilled Spring Barley

Winter malting barley has been a popular cropping choice in the UK for a number of years but this had not replicated in Ireland as there was no market for winter malting barley grain. A small proportion of growers in the south east, mainly concentred around the north Wexford area, who farm on extremely free draining soils have been drilling what is often referred to as winter malting barley however this is in fact a spring malting barley variety such as Laureate which is drilled in the autumn. While this may seem like an unusual practice, the main reason that growers choose this option is because of the longer growing season compared to spring sown, which increases the probability of achieving distilling grade barley. However, there are some obvious risks which come with this crop, which include the potential for poor tillering, increased disease pressure and potential crop failure from frost, which all mean that growing autumn drilled spring barley is limited to certain regions and certain farms.

True winter malting barley

As a result of the limitations to growing autumn drilled spring barley on a large scale and with the ever expanding drinks industry requiring increased quantities of malting barley, Boortmalt have turned to true winter malting varieties with aim of fulling the quantity of brewing barley required and in time potentially increasing distilling quantities and in doing so will offer growers another cropping option for producing malting barley. The first true winter malting barley crops were drilled on farm in the autumn of 2018 on a small scale. The aim was to grow these crops on a trial basis to firstly assess the agronomy of the crop in the field under Irish conditions and secondly to malt the grain produced and assess its quality.   

Two varieties were grown in year 1 which were Craft (2 row) and Pixel (6 row). Craft had been grown as a winter malting barley for a number of years in the UK and achieved good results. Pixel, at the time, was a new variety which unlike Craft was not specifically bred as a malt variety and therefore there was more uncertainty as regards to how it would perform. The harvest of 2019 was excellent for winter barley and both varieties performed well and as a result of this the decision was made to increase the area of both Craft and Pixel drilled in autumn 2019. However, as with a large proportion of drilling in autumn 2019, weather conditions did not allow for the planned area to be drilled and the area did not increase significantly from the previous year.

Lessons learned from year 1 & 2

Nitrogen rate to apply is vital for all malt crops and winter malt is no different. As winter malting barley was new to Ireland, there was limited research data available as to what was the optimum N rate for the crop. The most relevant research data available from Ireland came from research trials carried out in Teagasc Oak Park on two winter feeding barley varieties. The varieties Cassia and Volume were used in the trial and the results showed that a nitrogen application rate of 160 kg/N/ha gave an average grain protein of 9.7% without significantly reducing yield. The rate of nitrogen applied on farm to the winter malt crops in year 1 and 2 varied, with some growers increasing nitrogen rate above the 160 kg/N/ha. The nitrogen rate and protein percentage data recorded from the crops grown in the first two years have shown that on certain soil types where growers had historically low proteins and had an excellent knowledge of the farms soils, N rate could be increased to 175 kg/N/ha and still keep grain protein in spec, however, it was also noted that protein percentages did rise in line with the additional nitrogen applied.

Outside of Nitrogen, the agronomy of both Craft and Pixel was similar to other varieties being grown with the only major issue being ramularia on Pixel but was controllable on farm with chlorothalonil when applied at awn emergence. The data collected showed that yields from both varieties was slightly below other winter feed barley varieties.

Over the two year introductory period for winter malt in Ireland, it was clearly shown that it could be grown successfully with the grain produced meeting the specifications required.

Malting Performance

However, that was only the first process and the second test is the performance in the maltings and what quality of malt will be produced. The malting results showed that as expected, Craft produced the standard of malt that was required by the maltsters as it had been bred to do. It was hopeful that Pixel could also meet the standard required as it performed exceptionally well for growers in the field, however the quality was sub-standard and the variety could not be brought forward as a cropping option for harvest 21.        

Harvest 2021

The 2020 spring malting barley growing season was extremely difficult for many growers especially in the midland counties where drought in the early season and excessive rainfall in the late season proved to have severe consequences for producing malting barley within spec. As a result only a fraction of the malting barley delivered to Boortmalt from the midland counties was accepted. With this trend of drier early summers becoming more frequent and spring malting barley becoming a more difficult crop to grow, Boortmalt have decided to significantly increase the quantity of winter malting barley that will be produced for harvest 2021 with the aim of further area increases over the coming years and in doing so will allow growers to spread malting barley cropping risk.

As a result of this decision, just over 1100 hectares of winter malt was drilled this autumn. The majority of this is made up Craft, however three new varieties have also been made available to growers which include Electrum, Vessel and Joyau. These new varieties will have to go through the same assessment as Craft did both in the field and the maltings with the hope that the end product will meet the standard required.

Ongoing trials

With the area of winter malt ever growing and large grower interest in winter malt, it was clear that more research into the area was required. As part of the Teagasc/Boortmalt joint program and with the aim of increasing the level of knowledge with regard to winter malts, a replicated plot trial has been put in place by Teagasc Oak Park. The trial will have two purposes, firstly to evaluate the performance of each winter malting variety currently available and secondly as a nitrogen rate trial so that a clearer understanding of optimum N rate for winter malt can be determined. This trial is also being replicated on a field scale on farms in Laois, Kildare and Wexford. The data obtained from these field trials will be used to further strengthen the research findings from the replicated trial. These research findings will be invaluable as the concept of winter malting barley expands over the coming years.

Updates from these trials and further winter malting barley information will be available at a series of crop walks which will be run across the south east next spring as part of the Teagasc/Boortmalt joint program.   

More information on the Teagasc/Boormalt  Malting Barley Joint Programme can be found here: https://www.teagasc.ie/crops/crops/cereal-crops/malt-barley-joint-programme/