Southern Agricultural Research Center weed researcher Steve King (right) shows MSU President Geoff Gamble some of Southern's wheat and barley fields. The center in H8untley has been instrumental in testing experimental malt barley varieties.
OPPORTUNITIES BREW AS MALT BARLEY MOVES INTO MONTANA
by Carol Brenner
Malt barley production has traditionally thrived in the Red River Valley area of North Dakota. But a devastating disease from heavy moisture in that area is moving the crop west, which is good news for Montana farmers. “Scab rarely develops in Montana’s dry summer climate,” said Tom Blake, Montana State University barley breeder. Scab is the disease responsible for spoiling much of the barley in the Red River Valley. “Also, the farmers here are great at managing soil fertility and keeping the protein where it needs to be for malting barley.”
Producers have grown malt barley for decades, but they could get a big boost from the state’s first malting plant, International Malting Company (IMC), located in Great Falls.
Malt, made from barley, provides the enzymes, starch and protein that feed yeast and result in alcohol production in beer, said Blake. Malt also contributes color, body and flavor to the brew.
Using the same tools as in the human genome project, Blake has developed two new malting barley varieties that do well in dryland production environments like Montana. The first of these—Craft—should be in commercial production in spring 2007.
The goal is to make malt barley a key rural development tool for rainfed crop production in the state, where long-term temperature and precipitation trends are expected to favor the crop.
The work is similar to ongoing efforts to breed barley varieties that make feed barley an equal to corn as cattle feed. Funds have come, in part, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Other scientists in the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station and Agricultural Research Centers are involved in testing new malt barley varieties and developing effective and cost-efficient cropping and weed-management systems.
Grant Jackson at MSU’s Western Triangle Research Center in Conrad has done two years of field tests aimed at fine-tuning malt barley planting and fertilizer rates to maximize available rainfall.
At the Southern Agricultural Research Station in Huntley, weed researcher Steve King has been working with two experimental herbicides to gauge their effectiveness against wild oats. Wild oats can threaten malt barley yields and reduce prices.
Also at Huntley, superintendent Ken Kephart has done extensive malt barley trials in conjunction with Tom Blake’s variety development.
In Great Falls, IMC plant manager Mark Black said the plant expects to employ 35 people and process about 12 million bushels of barley each year. “We will purchase the grain as close to the facility as possible,” Black said.
Malt from IMC will be freighted to breweries, distillers and food customers. IMC supplies malt to some of the largest brewing companies worldwide, including Miller Brewing and Anheuser-Busch in the United States.
Black said IMC chose Great Falls for its plant for three reasons. “Great Falls is the best region for two-row malting barley and offers the best availability of water and utilities,” he said.
Richard Owen, executive vice-president of Montana Grain Growers Association (MGGA) and Chairman of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “The Great Falls location supplies IMC with plenty of barley, clean water from Giant Springs, lots of electricity and good rail transportation,” he said.“With a plant in Montana, farmers will not only save on freight, but the higher demand will bring more contracts and, consequently, greater price stability,” said Dave Henderson of Cut Bank. Henderson grows 2,000 acres of malt barley every year.“Another benefit for farmers is malt barley requires less fertilizer than wheat, and fertilizer is costly,” Henderson added. Malt barley is also insurable through the federal crop insurance program.
Herb Karst of Sunburst owns 1,800 acres of malt barley and is under contract with Coors and Anheuser-Busch. As past president of MGGA, he worked hard to bring the Milwaukee-based IMC to Montana.
“Farmers growing solely wheat will stay with that crop, but those growing a percentage of both will increase their malt production,” Karst said.
Looking into the future, Blake sees positive outcomes for farmers and the state’s economy. “It’s possible that the Great Falls plant will out-compete the older malting plants in the Midwest, as the plant is high-tech with less cost per production,” Blake said.
“IMC will produce 30 percent more malt than our industry can consume,” Blake continued. Consequently, because malting is an expensive process, IMC will need to find a place to sell outside the United States. China and South America are potential customers.
“The overall outlook is positive for Montana,” Blake said. “We can maintain our farmer’s advantage by producing varieties that meet the quality profile needs of the brew masters while also fitting Montana’s climate.”