Climate change creates challenges, opportunities for OSU barley program

October 6, 2021
Climate change creates challenges, opportunities for OSU barley program

The effects of this year's drought in the Pacific Northwest were ugly for many farmers growing malting barley in dryland regions east of the Cascades.

Prolonged hot and dry weather shriveled the Oregon crop by 72%, from 2.1 million bushels last year to 608,000 bushels as yields tumbled from 72 to 32 bushels an acre, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

High temperatures and low precipitation can also lead to higher protein levels in the grain, which slows the malting process and negatively impacts beer quality. Ideally, malting barley should have between 10% and 12% protein content to meet brewers' standards.

Patrick Hayes, who leads the barley research and breeding program at Oregon State University, said one local brewer described the 2021 spring malting barley crop from usually optimum dryland areas as a "bloodbath."

As climate change alters the availability of water in the West, Hayes said barley growers need varieties that are adapted to the new reality. Weather changes and volatility mean optimum conditions are no longer assured.

"That luxury, that stability, almost that guarantee, is something we need to look at again," Hayes said.

Most barley in the U.S. is now grown under contract for malting, Hayes said. It has historically been used for animal feed, though several changes beginning in the mid-1980s combined to make that a money-losing proposition.

"The net effect is that today it's more cost-effective to source Midwest corn than it is to buy barley from the farm next door," Hayes said.

The rise of the craft brewing industry has provided a niche market for growers in Oregon, where Hayes said acreage has held steady in recent years at approximately 30,000.

Since 2005, craft brewers have seen their revenue grow by 300%, according to a report from the market research company IBISWorld.

Hayes established Barley World at OSU in 1986 to steer growers through the transition from bulk commodity to specialized crop. His program has developed and released new varieties such as Thunder that are specifically geared toward malting.

Climate change, Hayes said, adds another challenge to ensure malting barley grown in the Northwest meets brewers' specifications.

For starters, Hayes said researchers are primarily focused on fall-planted varieties, as opposed to spring-planted. Fall varieties capture more moisture during the wetter winter months, which could prove invaluable during dry years, while boosting yields on average by 25%.

On the flip side, Hayes said fall varieties can be risky if hit by a sudden cold snap causing freeze injury.

"There can be extreme low temperature events that are short duration, and that can really hammer your crop," he said.

Thunder, which was released by OSU in 2019 and was the university's first malting barley variety approved by the American Malting Barley Association, has been successful overwintering in dryland areas of Eastern Oregon from Morrow County to La Grande, Hayes said.

Barley World has since released a second variety — aptly named Lightning — that Hayes described as the world's first facultative barley. That means it can be planted in either the fall or spring, since it is capable of surviving winters but does not rely on the exposure to cold to transition to flowering.

"You can see a situation where you see conditions in the fall that don't allow for planting, but you can turn around and plant that variety in the spring," Hayes said.

Other impacts of climate change include new disease and pest pressures that Hayes said researchers are continuing to study, such as stripe rust and stem rust.

"We hope that or research will pay off for growers and the industry here in Oregon," he said.


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