The emergence of Osage Bio Energy’s new barley-based ethanol plant in Hopewell, Va., has generated renewed interest in planting barley in the upper Southeastern region.

Barley researchers at Virginia Tech University have also increased research efforts aimed at developing and providing growers with improved barley varieties with acceptable agronomic traits to meet the needs of potentially new end-use markets.

There has been considerable interest in hull-less barley varieties in recent years, leading Virginia Tech researchers to begin the long process of developing new barley varieties with acceptable agronomic traits adaptable for use in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions.

Starch is the thing, when it comes to producing ethanol from barley. Though most hull-less varieties produce less yield, many produce more starch, giving them some advantage to the new Osage Bio Energy plant in Hopewell, which uses primarily barley for stock.

“Though yields may be lower, higher test weights for hull-less varieties may already make them competitive on a total starch to starch basis,” says Virginia Tech small grain breeder Carl Griffey.   

After corn, wheat and sorghum, barley is the fourth major grain crop grown in the United States. For a typical feed barley, the hull makes up 12 percent to 15 percent of the total grain weight and has a high fiber content. High fiber content can be a double-edged sword. It is not suitable for swine and poultry rations in animal feed, but highly sought after for other livestock feeding rations.

Good stock for ethanol

Hull-less barley is very good stock for ethanol production, because the hull begins to separate from the plant as it nears harvest, providing a "cleaner" final grain product.

For livestock feed, hull-less varieties have been found to have residual hull percentages as low as 3 percent. Hulless barley has the advantage, because more usable tonnage of the cereal grain can be harvested without the hull, yielding a crop that will provide more desired nutrients to animals.

Doyce was the first hull-less variety released by Carl Griffey’s breeding program at Virginia Tech. All breeding lines in the hull-less variety breeding program are classified as hull-less types, have varying degrees of threshability due to multiple genes for hull attachment, which can be expressed or masked during the threshing process. The hull-less trait is controlled by a single recessive gene, whereas, multiple genes govern hull attachment.

The problem for farmers is they often have to slow down the combine in order to get the hull-less grains. A typical harvesting speed for hulled barley is 4-5 miles per hour, while in some cases with hull-less varieties, Doyce in particular, the combine has to be slowed to 2-3 mph.

At a cylinder speed of 800, test weights for Doyce averages about 50-51 pounds. With two of the new varieties (Eve and Dan) test weights go up to the mid-50s for Eve and 60 for Dan.

Virginia Tech Researcher Mark Vaughn says the new hull-less barley varieties and several breeding lines are advanced well beyond Doyce. “Our yields are higher and threshability is higher now,” he says. Vaughn, who is headquartered at the Eastern Virginia Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Warsaw, Va., adds that all three varieties will produce 60 pound test weights, but not at higher cylinder speed settings on the thresher.

Eve was the second hull-less variety released by the Virginia Tech program. Typically, it yields a little better than Doyce, has slightly higher test weights and threshes better than Doyce.

Eve was released by the Virginia Agricultural Experimental Station in February 2007. It is moderately early heading, has long awns, has very good straw strength, high test weight, and plump seed.  

On average, head emergence of Eve is two or more days earlier than ‘Doyce’. Average plant height of Eve (34 inches) is 1-inch taller than Doyce. 

“The problem with Eve, Vaughn says, is the heads stay with the grain — they don’t go out the back, not even with a commercial combine. The test weight is high and the seed are clean, but the heads stay in the combine.”

Latest variety release

Dan is the latest hull-less variety released by the Virginia Tech program. Last year Dan produced 10 bushels per acre more than Doyce and had a high test weight — highest in all tests among hull-less varieties, Vaughn says.

Dan hulless barley was named in recognition of Dan E. Brann, professor emeritus and former grain specialist at Virginia Tech. Dan is a short stature, full season, long awned, hulless barley. It has good winter hardiness, straw strength, and very high test weight and grain starch concentration.

In Virginia, the 3-year (2008-2010) average grain yield of Dan (65 bushels per acre) was similar to Eve, but 3 bushels per acre higher than Doyce. Dan had the highest average test weight (58 pounds per bushel) that was 5.2 pounds per bushel higher than Doyce (53.5 pounds per bushel) and 1.4 pounds per bushel higher than Eve (57.3 pounds per bushel). 

Use of fungicides is critical in protecting grain yield and quality in varieties that are susceptible to plant diseases. When Doyce was released and in early production, leaf rust infection was basically 0-1 (based on a 0-9 scale; 0=highly resistant to 9=highly susceptible). In one test at the Eastern Virginia Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Warsaw, Virginia, Doyce was highly susceptible — a disease rating of 7-8.

When Doyce was released and in early production leaf rust was basically 0-1 for leaf rust, with 1 being virtually no damage and 9 being highly infected. In one test at the East Virginia Agriculture Research and Extension Center, one test with Doyce was highly infected — a disease rating of 7-8.

This is a good indication that there is a new isolate of the disease to which Doyce is susceptible. The same situation is occurring with Thoroughbred, the most popular barley variety was resistant to mildew. Now, it is highly susceptible to different races of mildew.

“Of these new varieties, even though they have resistance now, that doesn’t mean they will have it next year or in future years. New strains of these diseases can build up quickly, and if you now you have a variety with some susceptibility to disease, it is just a good management practice to use a fungicide,” Vaughn says.

“With mildew, even resistant lines have shown a seven percent reduction in yield. So, in most cases, the return on the cost of fungicide is going to be positive,” the Virginia Tech researcher adds.

Most of the potential new hull-less varieties being tested by Virginia Tech plant breeders include breeding lines from former Clemson University plant breeder Doyce Graham. The six original lines from South Carolina are the basis for the hull-less lines that have been developed and are being developed by Carl Griffey’s research team at Virginia Tech.

Other initial hulless barley lines including the USDA-ARS World collection were not well adapted to this region, they lacked desirable traits (low grain yield, test weight, straw strength) and were susceptible to many diseases.

“Without the breeding lines from Doyce Graham, we would have had to use the hull-less world collection, and they have not performed well at all in our tests. It would have been very difficult to get to where we are with new hull-less varieties without these South Carolina breeding lines,” Vaughn says.

Several others on the way

Several varieties have made it past preliminary trials and have gone on to advanced trials at the Warsaw research facility, at other Virginia Tech research cites and in other upper Southeast locations.

Virginia 06H-79 produced five bushels per acre more than Dan and had a test weight of 56.2 in testing last year at multiple sites in Virginia. It is a candidate to be the next hull-less variety to be released, but it has very little disease resistance.

Virginia06H-25, Virginia 06H-31 and Virginia 06H-35 are all crosses between the South Carolina lines and Thoroughbred. All have done well in tests in the upper Southeast. All thresh well and are white-seeded.

Last year H-25 produced nine bushels per acre more than Dan with a test weight of 58.0. H-31 produced 11 bushels more than Dan with a test weight of 58.5. H-35 produced nine bushels more than Dan and also had a test weight of 58.5.

In preliminary tests — lines that are farther away in the variety process — several new lines have performed even better than H-25, 31 and 35. These breeding lines will move forward to advanced testing and could well become future varieties.

Of the breeding lines in preliminary tests, Virginia 08-H-3 produced 18.4 bushels per acre more than Dan and had a test weight of 59.2. This is a blue-seeded hull-less barley and of particular interest are the high yields and test weight comparable to Dan.

Virginia 08-H-6, a white-seeded line produced 11.7 bushels per acre more than Dan and had a 59.6 test weight.

Virginia 08H-78, also a white-seeded line, produced 22.7 bushels per acre more than Dan, but had a test weight of only 56.9.

With Eve and Dan now available to growers and release of advanced breeding lines sure to produce new varieties in the next few years, and preliminary lines promising even better varieties farther down the road, the future for barley in general, and hull-less barley in particular looks very promising.

rroberson@farmpress.com