I posted an adorable picture of my dog AreenaJo in a barley field early this morning and it has put me on a “learn about barley” kick today. So I figured if I’m going to learn, we might as well learn together! It works out nicely that as I write this my resident barley expert, MyFarmer, is in the next room building a fishing pole so I can ask him as many questions as I want to and he can’t run away from me.
We are really lucky in southern Kentucky that we can “double crop” our fields, which means exactly what it sounds like… we can harvest 2 crops a year off of a piece of ground. To do this, we harvest the crop in the fall (corn) and plant the winter wheat or barley right behind it. We harvest the winter crop in late spring, then plant our “double crop” soybeans. (We always plant soybeans after wheat or barley.) The soybeans will grow all summer and will be harvested later in the fall. We don’t do this on all of our fields every year, but we do utilize this practice on fields that we want to prevent erosion of topsoil throughout the winter months.
We are one of the few farms in our little county that raise barley and we only raise on average 60-100 acres every year. Wheat is much more commonly grown in our area and we usually raise about 350 acres of it as well, but ScubaSteve is a humongous fan of barley. Why? Well it’s not because the price is better than wheat… that’s for sure. BUT it does tend to have a higher yield than wheat and most importantly the beans that are planted behind barley are higher yielding than the soybeans planted behind wheat. It’s enough of a yield boost to offset the difference in cash price between the wheat and barley and it helps our farm spread more risk out through crop diversification. Plus ScubaSteve loves barley… so we plant barley.
Barley is raised on every continent in the world that crops are grown and it is thought to be one of the first grains to be domesticated by humans. The top 4 countries for barley production are Russia, Germany, France and Canada. There are 2 types of barley grown around the world, feed grade barley and malting/food grade barley. Malting barley has a much higher starch content so it is preferred for making alcohol. About 60% of the barley produced across the world goes into animal feed, and the other 40% of the crop goes directly into human consumption via 2 main routes. 1) Milled/polished/dehulled barley or the barley is ground to make flours that can be used in a number of different breads/crackers/etc. 2) Beer. The majority of all barley that is used for human consumption actually goes into making beer! The types of barley used for beer are two-rowed barley and six-rowed barley. Different parts of the world prefer two or six-rowed for the purpose of making beer. The United States prefers six-rowed, but many other countries around the world prefer two.
So where does the barley from our farm go? Well… we don’t know. Some farmers actually contract their grain out to a specific company. There are a lot of farmers east of us that sell their corn directly to bourbon makers (this is Kentucky after all!) so they know that their corn is going to be made into bourbon. So the next time you drink bourbon pat yourself on the back for supporting a Kentucky farmer! 😉 I’m sure some farmers that grow barley near a beer making company take their barley directly to the source as well. We don’t have a local beer maker, so we take our barley to a local elevator where they load it on train carts and it can go anywhere in the US or world from there. (Fun fact about our little town.. until a couple years ago we were still a “dry county.” We had to go across the state line to Tennessee to buy any alcohol.) The type of barley that we raise is primarily used for animal feed, not beer, so sorry about kind of lying to you with the title. But I thought that sounded a whole lot better than “Barley: From Our Farm to a Cow’s Stomach to a Steak on Your Plate.” Please forgive me.
I’m not sure what your area of the world has been experiencing weather-wise, but it has been extremely unseasonably warm this winter for us. I think we have only had a few days where the ground was even frozen in the morning. Yesterday (February 24) was almost 80 degrees. That’s just unheard of. While the warm temperatures are great for walks with the dogs, it is a major concern for us on the wheat and barley front. We plant our wheat and barley after the fall crop has been harvested out of the field, so usually around October. This gives the barley and wheat about a month or so to come up and establish itself then it will go dormant for the rest of the winter. The problem with the extremely warm temperatures the last few weeks is that our barley and wheat have come out of dormancy and are growing like crazy. It looks great so that’s cool, but we are playing Russian roulette with the entire crop now. If the weather stays warm we should be fine and we will have a good crop come harvest time in June. The major BUT of this situation is this: If we have a cold snap come though it could really damage our wheat and barley and possibly kill it off. Seeing that we are just now in the end of February, a cold snap could very easily happen. Like MyFarmer says, “We will control the controllable’s and that’s all we can do.” Mother nature is most certainly not a controllable, so we will roll with the punches and see what she brings us this year.
Well friends, I hope you have learned a little bit more about barley with me today. I also hope that you have a great weekend and that in the spirit of supporting farmers you have a beer or bourbon… if you’re into that sort of thing.