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CU-31, a spring malting barley, was developed in four years and will be grown for commercial seed in 2021.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

December 17, 2020

6 Min Read
EMPIRE MALTING BARLEY: Malting barley variety trials are seen, including varieties developed by the lab of Mark Sorrells, at one of the university’s test plots in Batavia, N.Y. Sorrells is one of the lead researchers for CU-31.

Francis Domoy has grown what’s considered to be New York’s first climate-adapted grain. But it’s not corn or soybeans. It’s malting barley.

“The variety has demonstrated great uniformity, plump kernels, stiffness and large head size,” says Domoy, who grew the variety CU-31 in his Rochester fields this year for seed.

Released last March by plant breeders at Cornell University, it took four years to develop the spring barley. Researchers hope it will enable growers and brewers to meet the state’s 2012 Farm Brewery Law, which mandates that farm breweries steadily increase the amount of state-sourced ingredients used in their beers with the goal of achieving 90% by 2024.

CU-31 — there is currently a contest for a better, catchier name — is expected to be available for brewing next fall.

Local demand crucial

Domoy, who grows close to 200 acres of malting barley on his farm, raised 9 acres of CU-31 this past year. He says that it was resistant to local fungal pathogens and preharvest sprouting, two important factors since spring is usually wet and cold around the Rochester area.

“It's very uniform. It had a lot of uniform characteristics," he says.

Domoy started growing malting barley in 2013 with 30 acres after scoring a contract with a local malthouse. Today, he grows between 175 and 180 acres of the crop.

He planted CU-31 last spring using a John Deere 455 grain drill, and he harvested it using a wheat header attached to a John Deere 9500 combine.  

Malting barley usually follows vegetables in Domoy's crop rotation. In most cases, the straw is incorporated into the soil to help build up organic matter. It also follows soybeans, too.

Fungicides are a big part of his malting barley program. He has a two-application program, spraying once early in the growing season, and then spraying again around flowering. He looks for products with multiple modes of action.

Domoy spoon-feeds nitrogen, especially in fall when he’s planting winter barley, and he applies 30 units of iron at planting.

Growing malting barley isn’t for everyone, he says. “You have to treat it like a vegetable,” with lots of attention to details and money to invest in it.

“It’s not just about throwing it out on the ground and working it in with a tillage tool," Domoy says. "It has to be cleaned and, in most cases, sized correctly for the malthouse. It’s like a vegetable."


BARLEY CLOSE-UP: Gary Bergstrom, Cornell professor of plant pathology, shows an example of barley affected by fusarium head blight in a field near Bouckville. CU-31 is a new malting barley variety that was developed specifically to succeed in New York state’s climate.

And having an end market that provides a premium is crucial. CU-31 attempts to meet all the requirements of malthouses, he says. The secondary market is dog food or whole grain for lamb-finishing rations, but they’re only worth half what the malthouses would pay.

“The whole process works if there is demand," Domoy says. "Unless you have the right varieties, the right test results, it does not move, it becomes feed quality. It’s a commitment that a farm has to decide upon.”

Mark Sorrells, a professor in Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, is one of the lead researchers for CU-31. He says that most malting barley is grown in the western U.S. and Canada because it’s easier to grow the crop in a drier climate.

“It means it’s much more expensive and risky to grow malting barley in nontraditional areas,” he says. In fact, malting barley hadn’t been grown in New York state since before Prohibition, and there was really no demand for it until craft breweries started popping up.

The 2012 Farm Brewery Law provided between $200,000 and $400,000 a year for research on growing malting barley. That money’s important because the law mandates that for a business to receive a farm brewery license, its beer must be made primarily using locally grown ingredients — at least 60% of hops and 60% of all other ingredients from New York state by 2023, and 90% local ingredients after 2024.

In 2014, only 30% of malting barley grown in the state was good enough to meet brewery requirements, Sorrells says. The past several years, at least 70% of malting barley grown met standards. “We're on par with being able to produce malting barley as successfully as they do in the western U.S.,” he says.  

Breeding help from the Kiwis

Most barley grown in the Northeast is planted in fall and overwinters before reemerging in spring. But CU-31 is a spring variety. Sorrells says it was easier to grow a spring variety because you can grow multiple generations in a year.

Researchers partnered with New Zealand’s Southern Seed Technology to grow trials of spring malting barley during the Southern Hemisphere's summer — our winter — with seed coming back in time for our spring.

By contrast, winter malting barley’s timing in New Zealand — planted during our spring, dormant during our summer, and then reemerging during our fall — didn’t make it conducive for quickly producing seed.

In 2016, the first CU-31 crosses were developed with more than 1,000 lines grown out in greenhouses. In 2017, lines were sent to New Zealand for grow outs and then returned to New York state. That was repeated in winter 2018, when 100 lines were sent to New Zealand, and then sent back to New York in spring 2018 for growing here.

In 2019, 60 more lines were sent to New Zealand, and seed was sent back in time for spring 2019 in New York state. From the 2019 trials, the five best candidates were chosen for release, he says. They were then sent back to New Zealand for another grow out, and then several hundred pounds of seed from each line were returned to New York state.

Two were chosen earlier this year for grow out, including CU-31, and another candidate that will be released next year.

It took four years from developing the first crosses to release. Sorrells credits a combination of the latest growing technologies, and the fact that New Zealand has winter nurseries that are designed for this sort of work.

Achieving success

Rotations are crucial to successfully growing crops in the region, but that’s especially true in the Hudson Valley, where much of the malting barley acres are located. Sorrells says that growers there need to be able to rotate high-value grain with vegetable crops.

"This is really important for that region, especially, but farmers in the western part of the state want to rotate out of corn and soybeans,” he says.

While CU-31 is a spring crop, Sorrells says they’re working on a winter barley.

Sorrells says that producers will produce enough certified seed to grow CU-31 for malthouses in 2022. There might be as many as a half-dozen growers producing CU-31 in 2021, and some of that might make it to malthouses later this year.

The issue with spring-type crops, he says, is that you don't know what the weather will be like in spring and summer, if it's going to be dry or hot. Winter has its risks, too, especially if a producer can’t get summer crops harvested early enough to plant an overwintering crop.

Because of that, Sorrells recommends growing a little of both.   

“The main advantage to having a choice between winter and spring is growers can spread out their risk; they'll have a chance to produce high-quality malting,” he says.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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