As harvest drags on, malt barley quality uncertain

MarketsFarm — The quality of Canada’s 2019-20 barley crop remains to be seen, as cool and wet harvest conditions across much of the Prairies are raising concerns over how much will meet malt specifications.

“We’ll lose a lot of malting barley this year, because of the weather,” said Peter Watts, managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.

While harvest is near completion in some areas of Manitoba, Watts said “it’s a real struggle this year” on a more general level across all three Prairie provinces. “There’s a lot of barley still out there that hasn’t been harvested.”

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Adverse weather in the spring also split up seeding, with some of the barley crop going in early and other fields late due to rains in May. That wide planting window adds uncertainty to the final quality.

Anecdotal reports for what has come off so far are highly varied. Watts said that while there have been some reports of good-quality malting barley, he had also heard of more chitting than normal.

Chitted barley, also called pre-germination, refers to grain that has prematurely started to sprout before being harvested. Chitted barley can still be made into malt shortly after harvest, but degrades quickly in storage.

Staining will also be a problem due to the rain, Watts said.

Canadian farmers did seed a larger barley crop this year, and Statistics Canada’s August survey pegged production at 9.6 million tonnes — well above the 8.4 million tonnes grown in 2018-19 and the previous five-year average of 8.1 million tonnes. Watts said some estimates still point to a crop of 10 million tonnes or more.

“We’ll have a pretty big pool to choose from, but if the weather doesn’t smarten up it will compromise a lot of the quality,” said Watts.

“Quality will be all over the map this year, and it will be a struggle for grain companies and malting companies to find enough good quality malting barley.”

Canada’s domestic malting industry typically takes about one million tonnes per year. Canada has also been exporting over a million tonnes of malt barley on an annual basis in recent years, which means the country needs at least two million to 2.5 million tonnes of malt barley.

Watts was confident that the demand would be met, but said end-users may have a harder time finding supplies.

“There’s no question that we’ll see feed prices ease off,” he said, noting the price spread between feed and malt barley will likely widen.

Feed barley bids over the past winter were strong due to tight supplies and even traded at a premium to malt in some cases. In 2019-20, producers with unpriced malt-quality barley will be looking for prices to go up, said Watts.

From a protein standpoint, early indications are for slightly lower average protein barley compared to the past few years, which Watts said was a function of larger yields.

In 2018-19, Canada’s malt barley averaged 11.9 per cent protein, according to Canadian Grain Commission data. Watts expected the 2019-20 selected barley would be in the lower 11s.

— Phil Franz-Warkentin writes for MarketsFarm, a Glacier FarmMedia division specializing in grain and commodity market analysis and reporting.

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