News

Growing malting barley amid climate change; the challenge of pre-harvest sprouting

By Karl Kunze
Graduate Student, Cornell University, School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, advised by Dr. Mark Sorrells

If you recall from the 2021 season, you almost certainly heard of the challenging weather conditions experienced growing barley across the country. Despite some regions facing extreme drought, rain was particularly high for other regions during harvest, which was detrimental for growing areas and malting barley varieties not adapted to rain that late in the season. For the last few decades, malting barley varieties have been selected for less dormancy so that when harvested, the barley can be malted more quickly. The tradeoff, however, means that once the barley reaches maturity, the barley is highly prone to germinate if enough moisture is present in the environment and this is called pre-harvest sprouting. Given increasingly unpredictable weather events due to climate change, rain events at harvest are becoming more common at locations not typically used to such conditions.

Future barley breeding must focus on selecting barley varieties that are resistant to pre-harvest sprouting but will also germinate quickly in the malt house and produce high quality malt. Fortunately, there is plenty of genetic variation that barley breeders can integrate into new varieties that can be both resistant to pre-harvest sprouting in the field but also produce high quality malt.

The Cornell Small Grains Breeding Program has been measuring pre-harvest sprouting on both wheat and barley lines to select varieties that are resistant to the condition. We start by making note of when each barley line has reached physiological maturity, or when the barley grain has completed development and no green is left in the barley head. This requires some careful examination of spikes to ensure that the sample is at that point. If we sample too early, the grain may not have developed completely, and pre-harvest sprout scores may be artificially low. If we sample too late, we do not have an accurate measure of when the barley reached maturity and thus, we cannot compare to other experimental lines. After we harvest 5 mature spikes from each experimental plot, we then have the barley further ripen for 3 (for spring barley) to 4 days (for winter barley). Those samples from each plot are then placed into flat trays and consistently misted for 3 days in the greenhouse to simulate a rain event that would occur in the field. After those 3 days, the trays are then removed and each of the 5 spikes are scored on a 0-9 scale for visible signs of pre-harvest sprouting. A score of 0 indicates no visible signs of pre-harvest sprouting, low scores indicate some pre-harvest sprouting, and high scores show clearly visible green coleoptile (shoots) on most of the kernels in the spike.

For the 2022 year alone, we analyzed over 450 experimental winter lines and 100 experimental spring lines for pre-harvest sprouting, in addition to all of our variety trials and cooperative nurseries. In our experimental trials, we use the pre-harvest sprouting information for two purposes. One is to potentially map genetic variation within our experimental populations. The second is to eliminate lines that we find to have moderate to high pre-harvest sprouting susceptibility. We screen all variety trials, including cooperative nurseries, to make recommendations on the potential risk of growing varieties that are susceptible to pre-harvest sprouting.

Selecting for pre-harvest sprouting is a balancing act, ensuring barley has some dormancy so that it does not germinate in the field but not so much dormancy so that the grain will not germinate well in the malt house. Our research in measuring both pre-harvest sprouting and seed dormancy in a spring and winter barley population indicates that this balance can be achieved. In spring barley, some of our parent lines were very prone to pre-harvest sprouting and thus we have had to select for more dormancy. In our winter malting barley population, we have had the opposite effect, where most lines are sufficiently resistant to pre-harvest sprouting but may have excessive dormancy that would not be desirable for malting quality. Over the winter of 2021-2022, we had the opportunity to perform nano malting on approximately 170 experimental lines at two different malting timepoints. So far, we have found that most experimental lines have acceptable malt quality. We have significant variation of seed dormancy at our earlier timepoints. Most of our non dormant lines were resistant to pre-harvest sprouting based on our field tests. Continuing work and collaboration with growers, maltsters, brewers and support from AMBA has allowed us to make progress in achieving this balance.

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This research was funded, in part, by the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA), an agricultural trade organization representing the interests of end users of malting barley, including maltsters, brewers, distillers, and food processors. Our work seeks to maintain a stable and high quality supply of malting barley for our members throughout the U.S. AMBA’s direct investment, supported by member dues, augments state and federal funds allocated for barley research.

The core of AMBA’s research program is applied barley breeding and related support programs, including basic research. Other support is provided for research projects on diseases, insect pests, variety evaluation, production, management, and malting quality. Significant progress has been realized in the improvement of malting barley varieties as a result of the collaborative efforts of state and federal research facilities and industry partners. Concurrently, there is always the need for new varieties that reduce the risk to the grower, provide improved quality characteristics to the end-user, and remain competitive with other crop options. Understanding the balance between pre-harvest sprouting and dormancy is an excellent example of such a need.

Sherman elected to leadership role with the National Barley Improvement Committee

Dr. Jamie Sherman, associate professor and plant breeder with the Montana State University, was recently elected to the role of vice-chair of the National Barley Improvement Committee (NBIC). The NBIC is an organization representing the U.S. barley community of growers, researchers, processors, users, and allied industries that advocate for sound farm policy and research funding at the federal level. Leadership for the committee is provided by the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA). Sherman will serve as the vice-chair for two years and will assume the chair role in 2024 at the conclusion of current chair’s term, Corey Mosher. Mosher is a crop farmer from New York state and has been producing barley for the craft malt and beer industry.

Sherman has built a barley breeding program at Montana State University focused on the needs of the growers in Montana and of the malting barley industry. She has been especially interested in developing improved varieties that can be resilient to the challenges that a changing climate presents. Sherman, who has been a member of the committee since 2014, noted she is “looking forward to continuing to work together to improve barley for the whole supply chain and build support for that work.” She added she is “particularly excited about the new initiative planned to overcome challenges barley faces around the country.”

The primary activity of the NBIC is an annual legislative fly-in where the committee travels to Washington, D.C. to present industry priorities to their congressional members. The primary ask for the upcoming federal fiscal year is full funding of the Barley Pest Initiative, a collaborative effort to tackle over 20 insect and disease pressures through improved breeding and management practices. It currently receives $2 million of the $5.3 million requested annually. Tentatively, an additional $1 million has been written into both the Senate and House FY23 budgets. Visit the NBIC website to learn more about their work. 

August barley production report released; crop condition greatly improved from this time last year

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released their August 12, 2022 Crop Production Report. 

Production is forecast at 158 million bushels, up 34 percent from 2021. Based on conditions as of August 1, the average yield for the United States is forecast at 66.3 bushels per acre, up 5.9 bushels from last year. Area harvested for grain or seed, at 2.38 million acres is down 1 percent from the Acreage report released on June 30, 2022, but up 22 percent from 2021.  

Forty-three percent of the Nation’s barley acreage had reached the headed stage by July 3, fourteen percentage points behind last year and 10 percentage points behind the 5-year average. Seventy-nine percent of the Nation’s barley acreage had reached the headed stage by July 17, nine percentage points behind last year and 8 percentage points behind the 5-year average. Ninety-eight percent of the Nation’s barley acreage had reached the headed stage by July 31, equal to both last year and the 5-year average. By July 31, barley producers had harvested 6 percent of the Nation’s barley crop, 5 percentage points behind last year but equal to the 5-year average. On July 31, fifty-five percent of the Nation’s barley acreage was rated in good to excellent condition, 34 percentage points above the same time last year

You can access the August 12, 2022 USDA NASS Crop Production Report; along with other historical acreage, production, and stock reports, from the AMBA website

You can find additional barley data at the NASS website

SweetWater Brewing Company joins AMBA to stay connected to the barley supply chain

AMBA would like to formally welcome SweetWater Brewing Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, as their newest associate member. SweetWater was founded in 1997 by two college buddies with “more of a hankering for beers than books.” Their quick success landed them as Small Brewery of the Year at GABF in 2002, becoming the first brewery east of the Mississippi to win. Through expansion in the southeast and into Colorado, they have consistently been a top 15 producer by volume, amongst their craft brewing peers. 

When asked their motivation for joining AMBA, Mark Medlin, brewmaster at SweetWater, mentioned their desire to stay informed on barley news and challenges and looks forward to the insightful and timely reports regarding the growing season and barley supply. 

AMBA is excited to bring on new members, like SweetWater, which furthers our mission to encourage and support production of an adequate supply of high quality malting barley for our various end-user members. This is accomplished by building a network of engaged barley interests so that the best available research informs the development and production of the U.S. malting barley crop. Learn more about joining AMBA today: https://ambainc.org/membership-information/.

Maintaining malting barley quality at harvest

Despite late planting and a cool spring, the malting barley harvest is underway and initial quality and yield reports are favorable. “Growers are pressing hard to get the crop out of the field between weather events, but early harvest results also reflect test weights in the 49-53 pounds per bushel range,” reported Wade Malchow, Barley Program Manager at Molson Coors Beverage Company. Malchow also serves as the chair of the Agriculture Policy committee for the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA). 

Late planting, however, can lead to a later and often more prolonged dry down and harvest period. “In recent years, the industry has seen an increase in barley harvested at higher moisture levels, especially in the more humid Midwest growing region. The lateness of this season could exacerbate that issue,” shared Scott Heisel, president of AMBA.  AMBA is an agricultural trade association that represents end-users of malting barley whose mission is focused on ensuring a sustainable and high-quality supply of domestic malting barley for their membership.

Drying of malting barley must be done with great care as the malting process requires barley with a high percentage of vigorously germinating kernels to produce the quality of malt needed for the brewing, distilling, and food industries. Heisel commented, “Growers have a lot invested in their crop, and a little extra care at harvest time will ensure they meet malting specifications.” AMBA partnered with North Dakota State University and the Institute for Barley and Malt Sciences on the publication: Harvesting, Drying, and Storing Malting Barley, which outlines best practices for post-harvest handling of malting barley to ensure quality. As outlined in the publication, malting barley should be dried without added heat, but if heating must be used, the air should be no warmer than 100°F. Consulting with your barley purchaser on preferred post-harvest handling procedures is also recommended.  

AMBA receives supplemental funding to increase research investment

The American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) each year directs member investment into a research grant program supporting its mission to encourage and support production of an adequate supply of high quality malting barley for the malting, brewing, distilling and food industries. Much of the work funded seeks to develop new, more competitive malting barley varieties, and to develop a better understanding of how to manage the crop to yield high quality. 

Industry leaders recognize the importance of AMBA’s investment, and we are excited to share two examples of how supplemental funding has been secured to further support our mission.

  • Proximity Malt has pledged $5,100; they, along with other brewing friends and partners, have secured funds through the Dave Kuske Memorial Fund to be directed towards the barley breeding program at Virginia Tech. 
  • Bell’s/New Belgium Brewing Co. and the Michigan Brewers Guild each pledged $1,000; to be directed to the barley research program at Michigan State University. 

If you have interest in making an investment in malting barley research, reach out to Ashley to learn how to leverage our grant program to make that happen.

Registration now open for joint barley research conference in Davis, California

The planning committee of the joint 23rd North American Barley Research Workshop and 43rd Barley Improvement Conference is excited to welcome the barley research community to Davis, California, September 22nd-24th. The robust program features a diverse slate of seminars, panels, and posters and features two pre-workshop opportunities to get hands-on experience with the malting and brewing processes. Register now at the conference website. Early-bird pricing ends July 31st. 

The program will be kicked off with an industry panel, featuring both Canadian and U.S. contributors. Planned technical sessions cover topics such as plant breeding, the evolution of barley production, abiotic and biotic stressors, agronomy, hulless barley, and barley quality. The first day will conclude with a happy hour and poster session, and the second day will wrap up with a dinner, featuring guest speaker Dr. Michael Davis, retired president of the American Malting Barley Association and former executive secretary of the National Barley Improvement Committee. 

In conjunction with the conference, the Craft Maltsters Guild is hosting their 2nd annual Malt for Brewers and Distillers Workshop. This two-day, in-person course is custom-tailored for craft malt beverage producers and provides an extensive overview of technical malt knowledge from farm to fermenter. Maltsters and farmers will also find the workshop a valuable opportunity to learn to better communicate with their brewery and distillery clients. Hands-on activities and tours of the UC Davis Brewing Program pilot brewery, as well as a local craft maltster, Admiral Maltings in Alameda, CA, will also be part of the experience. Visit the event website to learn more about the workshop and to register. 

Additionally, conference co-host, Dr. Glen Fox, Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC-Davis, welcomes attendees to participate in a one-day brewing course on September 21st, targeting early-career barley professionals. This course will provide participants a very hands-on experience in practical brewing. This day is limited to first 16 participants to register. Please contact Glen to get the discount code.  

For any questions regarding the program, reach out to co-host Dr. Harmonie Bettenhausen, Director of the Center for Craft Food and Beverage at Hartwick College. Questions regarding registration can be directed to Dr. Glen Fox. We look forward to hosting you in Davis! Register by July 31st for early-bird pricing. 

First barley production report of 2022 released

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released their July 12, 2022 Crop Production Report. Much of the data is based on initial estimates and forecasts and does not report all barley production states. Individual state level estimates will be published in the Small Grains 2022 Summary.  

Production is forecast at 175 million bushels, up 49 percent from 2021. Based on conditions as of July 1, the average yield for the United States is forecast at 73.0 bushels per acre, up 12.6 bushels from last year. Area harvested for grain or seed, at 2.40 million acres is unchanged from the Acreage report released on June 30, 2022, but up 23 percent from 2021. A record high yield is expected in Idaho.  

Nationwide, 97 percent of the barley acreage was sown by June 12, three percentage points behind last year and 2 percentage points behind the 5-year average. Ninety-six percent of the barley acreage had emerged by June 19, two percentage points behind last year but equal to the 5-year average. Heading of the Nation’s barley acreage advanced to 19 percent complete by June 26, twenty-one percentage points behind the previous year and 12 percentage points behind the 5-year average. Overall, 53 percent of the barley acreage was reported in good to excellent condition on June 26, compared to 31 percent at the same time last year. 

You can access the July 12, 2022 USDA NASS Crop Production Report; along with other historical acreage, production, and stock reports, from the AMBA website

You can find additional barley data at the NASS website

American Malting Barley Association releases new logo and branding strategy

The American Malting Barley Association (AMBA), a trade organization representing end users of malting barley including maltsters, brewers, and distillers, has released their new logo after a branding refresh process led by vice president and technical director, Ashley McFarland, who came to the organization last October. The existing logo had been virtually unchanged for nearly 40 years and was indicative of the founding roots of the organization. 

At a quick glance, the golden six-row barley head is what was most identifiable about the old logo, but what many did not realize is that the barley head was set in a pilsner glass shaped background. The nod to the brewing industry and its role in the organization’s history at the time was appropriate, but as AMBA seeks to diversify its membership, specifically bringing on more distillers, it was necessary to broaden the relevance of the image to ensure inclusiveness. 

That led McFarland to work with AMBA’s Communication and Membership committee to reimagine a logo that was very intentional in its focus on the malting barley itself – for all end users. Part of that process was to commission the illustration of a new two-row barley head that was both technically accurate and functional from a design perspective. The decision was made to also pivot from the previous color palette to a more natural green, but with a more vintage feel on the font choice. Scott Heisel, AMBA’s president, speaks favorably of the new image, “AMBA’s new Communication and Membership Committee enthusiastically endorsed a refreshed logo that worked with today’s wide variety of media. Ashley did an outstanding job of incorporating the Committee’s input into this versatile logo and I am looking forward to hearing what others think of the design.”

Thank you to everyone from the committee to the Board that provided feedback and support throughout the process. The new logo will be gradually implemented throughout all AMBA communication channels, including correspondence, reports, website, and social media.

AMBA announces grant recipients

The American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) research grant program is directed at meeting its mission to encourage and support an adequate supply of high quality malting barley for the malting, brewing, distilling, and food industries and to increase our understanding of malting barley. AMBA’s direct investment, supported by member dues, augments state and federal funds allocated for barley research.

The core of AMBA’s research program is applied barley breeding and related support programs, including basic research. Other support is provided for research projects on diseases, insect pests, variety evaluation, production, management, and malting quality. Significant progress has been realized in the improvement of malting barley varieties as a result of the collaborative efforts of state and federal research facilities and industry partners. At the same time, there is always the need for new varieties that reduce the risk to the grower, provide improved quality characteristics to the end-user, and remain competitive with other crop options.

AMBA is proud to announce the newly awarded slate of projects, which features some new collaborators and provides continued support for many of the public barley breeders. You can read more about the AMBA research grant program at their website

Brian Steffenson University of Minnesota Investigations on barley diseases and their control and development of two-rowed malting barley germplasm with low temperature tolerance
Carl Duley University of Wisconsin Sustainable western Wisconsin malting barley production 
Brook Wilke, James DeDecker, Monica Jean Michigan State University Improving resilience of U.S. barley production through winter barley in the Great Lakes Region
Do Mornhinweg USDA-ARS, Stillwater Aphid-resistant malting barley germplasm enhancement and evaluation
Eric Stockinger Ohio State University, Wooster Winter growth habit recombinant inbred line populations for breeding winter-hardy, lodging-resistant malting barley – developing and crossing advanced selections
Glen Fox University of California-Davis Effect of genotype and environment on the starch gelatinization and malting quality of Californian winter barley
Heather Darby University of Vermont Northeast malting barley evaluation and production
Isabel Alicia del Blanco, Jorge Dubcovsky, Allison Krill-Brown UC-Davis Development of two-row spring malting barley
Jamie Sherman, Hannah Estabrooks, Greg Lutgen Montana State University Barley breeding for Montana: Ensuring a stable malt supply with new traits to improve quality
Jared Spackman University of Idaho Irrigated spring malt barley yield, grain quality, and malt quality response to nitrogen and sulfur fertilization
Jonathan Jacobs Ohio State University, Columbus Fortifying U.S. barley production against Bacterial Leaf Streak disease
Katherine Frels University of Nebraska Winter-hardy 2-row malting barley cultivar development for the great plains
Kevin Smith University of Minnesota Two-row barley improvement — University of Minnesota
Margaret Krause Utah State University Winter malting barley for Utah: dryland vs. irrigated
Nicholas Santantonio Virginia Tech Development of two-row winter malt barley cultivars for the eastern U.S.
Pat Hayes Oregon State University Optimizing malting quality, disease resistance, and low temperature tolerance via accelerated development of two-row winter and facultative malting barley varieties 
Rich Horsley North Dakota State University Breeding and genetics of two-rowed malting barley
Robert Brueggeman Washington State University Developing two-row malting varieties for the Pacific Northwest
Ruth Dill-Macky University of Minnesota Management and epidemiology of barley diseases
Tom Baldwin North Dakota State University Management and innovative research on economically important barley diseases
Zack Bateson, M. Oneil National Agricultural Genotyping Center Improving the discriminatory power of varietal identification and certification tests of barley
Zhaohui Liu North Dakota State University Identification of Bacterial Leaf Streak susceptibility genes in barley through RNA sequencing