Barley production in the upper Southeast could be a boon to grain farmers, but perhaps it could also help pull the livestock industry out of a tailspin that began when corn and other grain feeds soared in price the past two years.

Current barley production in the Carolinas and Virginia is barely enough to make a ripple in the livestock industry. However, growing interest, fueled by the construction of a barley-powered ethanol plant in Hopewell, Va., may make barley more commonplace on Southeastern farms.

One of the side benefits of growing barley is the production of barley meal, a high protein livestock feed that has few of the negatives associated with feeding livestock distillers dry grain, which is produced as a by-product of corn-powered ethanol.

Barley is a cereal grain, and though generally considered an energy source, it has more protein than other cereals commonly used in ruminant diets. Nutritional composition of barley can be affected by geographic location and climatic conditions.

Several new varieties of barley, including a hulless variety, Eve, have shown improvements in nutrient composition. Virginia Tech University Plant Breeder Carl Griffey is at the forefront of developing new barley varieties specifically for the upper Southeast. Griffey’s research team is currently testing hundreds of barley varieties and breeding lines in statewide tests. The upper Southeast has an ideal climate for barley production, Griffey says, and these new varieties will be specifically bred to take full advantage of the area’s climatic conditions.

Virginia Tech Small Grains Specialist Wade Thomason says Griffey’s research efforts are already paying off for Virginia growers and livestock producers worldwide.

“We needed to make the grade for international markets as well as local feed markets. Older varieties would often respond to poor harvest weather or dry spells by producing light, 43- to 45-pound test weight grain. Test weights for the new hulled varieties are coming in at the mid-50s while the hulless varieties are approaching 60 pounds per bushel,” Thomason says.

The Hopewell, Va., ethanol mill under construction by Osage Biofuels will use approximately 30 million bushels of barley per year and is designed to produce 170 million tons of BPM (barley protein meal) annually.

Craig Shealy, president and CEO of Osage BioFuels, the Glen Allen, Va.,-based company building the Hopewell plant says, “we hope to develop local markets ideally, or U.S. markets for our BPM.” Shealy explained there is currently a big demand for BPM in foreign markets, particularly in grain deficient countries like China.

Despite an intense marketing and information program, barley production in Virginia is expected to increase to only about 70,000 acres in 2009 — up only 10 percent or so from 2008. Though the projected 2009 level of production would be a five-year high, it is still only a fraction needed by the Virginia plant.

Nationwide, barley acres have declined over the past decade, largely because prices prior to the most recent spike in grain prices, have hovered well below $2 per bushel.

During the same time frame, the acreage decline was accompanied by weakening feed demand as larger operations replaced small farms that once raised barley for their own on-farm feed needs.

U.S. production dropped from a high of more than 590 million bushels in the mid-1980s to 180 million bushels in 2006.

U.S. barley production has increased as prices have reached $5-6 per bushel. USDA estimates for the 2009 crop in the U.S. are 215-230 million bushels of barley.

Barley needs to be processed to be used effectively in cattle diets but the procedure need not be elaborate. Steam treatment of barley has a less pronounced effect than is observed with either corn or grain sorghum.

The new Hopewell ethanol plant will be equipped with the latest engineering design to more efficiently process barley for livestock feed. Shealy contends the barley meal produced by the Hopewell ethanol plant will be some of the highest quality feed grain available to Southeastern livestock producers.

Starch is the major constituent of the barley kernel and its percentage is inversely related to protein content. Expressed on a dry matter basis, barley has 7.5 percent to 18 percent protein and a total digestible nutrient (TDN) value of 80 percent to 84 percent.

Large increases in barley production in the Southeast will likely come in a double-crop system with soybeans, which traditionally are among the lowest users of applied nitrogen. However, recent research, combined with continued high prices of beans and reduced nitrogen costs have created interest among growers to apply additional nitrogen to soybeans to achieve high yields.

Increasing nitrogen on double-crop beans would be a quality enhancer for barley protein meal, since high levels of soil nitrogen provide for increased protein content of BPM.

Barley plants are annual grasses which may be either winter annuals or spring annuals. In the Southeast these are predominantly going to be winter annuals planted in a double-crop with soybean or as a winter cover crop.

Virginia grower Kevin Engle planted about a thousand acres of barley in the fall of 2008. “We treat barley just like any other crop. We have the on-farm storage capacity to hold it, and we have found good market availability and a fair price for our barley,” Engle says.

Growing barley, Engle contends, is no more difficult than growing other grain crops. “If you are set up to grow wheat, you should be able to grow barley without much of a problem,” Engle explains.

Winter annuals require a period of exposure to cold in order to produce flowers and set seeds, thus are planted in the fall. They form a rosette type of growth in fall and winter, developing elongated stems and flower heads in early summer. If seeded in the spring they fail to produce seed heads.

Winter varieties form branch stems or tillers at the base so several stems rise from a single plant. The winter varieties of barley are hardier than winter oats, but somewhat less hardy than winter wheat. A high percentage of the winter barley grown in the U.S. is grown in the Southeast.

While BPM is widely used overseas and in the U.S. as a cattle feed, the poultry industry has been slower to adapt it as a feed grain.

The low nutritional value of barley for poultry is because of the absence of an intestinal enzyme for efficient processing of sugars critical to the digestive and reproductive tract of poultry, the major polysaccharide of the endosperm cell walls.

Historically, feeding BPM to poultry has caused high viscosity in the intestine, limited nutrient uptake, decreased growth rate, and unhygienic sticky droppings adhering to chickens and floors of the production cages.

Improvements in processing equipment and ethanol production expertise have significantly reduced the viscosity problem. Combined with continued high corn prices, barley is once again being looked at as a supplemental feed source for chickens and turkeys.

The opportunities for livestock feed and grain for ethanol production are huge for barley, according to a recent USDA Agriculture Research Service Report.

ARS researchers at the Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa., believe that the United States could produce 1 billion to 2 billion gallons of ethanol from barley, not to mention the potential for an equal amount of cellulosic ethanol from the straw once cellulosic technology is commercially viable.

Osage Bio Energy is in the planning stages of developing a second barley-powered ethanol plant in South Carolina. Combined, the two plants would offer a huge market for grain growers from north Florida to Pennsylvania.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com