"Designer" Barleys Add Value to Two Traditional Montana Crops
If Montana producers wanted to feed corn, they would have to have it shipped into the state. If the producers could grow grain that is as high as corn in feed value, producers could economically retain their calves in Montana for a longer time. They would reduce the mortality of calves that are shipped, and their feed costs would be lower due to reduced grain transportation costs.
This all adds up to a large potential demand for high-feed value barleys. About 70 percent of the barley currently produced in Montana is sold as livestock feed. But this has been mainly malt barley that didn't gain industry acceptance, or barley that had a yield advantage but no malting quality. These varieties are now grown on about half a million dryland acres.
Blake estimates the increased yields of Valier and other new lines might be worth an added $6 million annually to Montana barley producers. That figure is based on an added harvest of 60,000 tons of the new lines as they replace older, lower yielding varieties with limited likelihood of being accepted for malt.
He also expects producers to get a premium for their crop. Currently, one of the feed millers in Great Falls is offering a premium to growers of Valier, says Blake.
Most producers, though, are waiting to see whether Valier lives up to its promise, he says. "It'll take a couple of years for Valier to be grown on enough acreage to see whether it earns a place in Montana agriculture," says Blake.
Still, Bowman's feedlot studies bear out the high-feed value of Valier and some of the other lines under evaluation in the last several years. In these studies, calves weighing about 750 pounds were fed balanced rations of the various barleys for 140 days. At the end of that period, the calves on the experimental lines weighed an average of 1250 pounds.
"Our results demonstrated that the differences (in feed value) were large and potentially very economically significant," says Bowman.
New lines being evaluated in the feedlot are not showing significant variation among each other in feed value, but they all are outperforming corn, says Bowman.
Feedlot studies are helping the researchers determine which barley characteristics translate into the best feedlot performance. Data from 18 feedlot trials conducted in Montana and Idaho from 1993 to 2000 showed that the best feed barleys have the highest energy content, the lowest fiber content and degrade slowly in the rumen.
"We now have a series of criteria that we can analyze barley samples for in the lab, and use to predict which ones will have the best feed quality," says Bowman. "This will greatly speed up the selection process," she adds.
The researchers have also determined that barley digestibility in feedlot cattle is similar to that of rats -- another correlation that should speed up the selection of barley lines. Evaluating feed value in the lab using rats would be much faster and cheaper than doing full-scale feedlot studies, says Bowman. This latest study involved barley lines from the USDA's world collection.
The selection of desired traits for the new barleys has been substantially aided by the North American Barley Genome Mapping project, in which Blake participated. The project is now paying off because breeders are able to select genes that control specific traits and incorporate them into the development of desirable breeding lines of barley.
Because of these developments, the Montana researchers should be able to release a series of feed barley varieties with "substantially improved feeding characteristics over the next decade," says Blake. Some of these varieties might be available for planting as early as spring 2001.