A worldwide shortage of top quality malting barley is helping to drive prices over £200/t and should give growers confidence in spring barley for 2008 and beyond, according to maltsters and the grain trade.
Adrian Dyter, commercial director at Greencore Malt, says a very tight supply and demand situation has been created, with global malt demand growing faster than malting capacity has increased.
“We’ve had a couple of disappointing harvests, which, when combined with a streamlined malting industry and increased demand from developing countries, have created a very different situation to that of three or four years ago.”
While UK malting capacity has declined as the industry has restructured, construction of plants has taken place in other parts of the world, he says. “Places like Russia and China have built their own maltings, to meet their growing beer production and consumption. This has all added to the need for good malting barley.”
But this expansion has largely taken place in areas with unstable climates, so there have been strong seasonal effects on crop quality and yields, which has helped to boost UK malting barley trade, he adds.
Closer to home, growth in whisky sales and a shortage of mature spirit has led to the distillers having to import malt into Scotland during 2007, the first time this has happened in recent years, continues Mr Dyter.
“Two plants in Scotland are currently increasing their capacity to help meet this rising demand. That will increase the barley requirement by 10% in 2008 in the north.”
This all means barley prices and premiums will be sustainable for the foreseeable future, he believes. “Brewers and distillers are far more concerned about supplies now. The price of malt has changed, the supply situation is much tighter and growers are being tempted by better deals and greater commitment. And there will probably be more to come in terms of added value contracts.”
Lower nitrogen needed
Stuart Shand, sales director with Gleadell Agriculture, says there is a particular need for lower nitrogen barleys.
“Because the production of malting barley has fallen by 30% in the UK since 2000, we’ve really struggled to find these lower nitrogen crops. And they’re needed by the real ale and the distilling markets.”
Maltsters have widened their specifications as much as possible, he notes. “Growers who have a bad, high nitrogen year can still sell their crops at a premium. That’s how much things have changed.”
Mr Shand advises growers from Lincolnshire and Yorkshire northwards to aim for the lower nitrogen market. “That means producing barley with a grain nitrogen content below 1.6%. There’s an additional £10/t premium, over and above existing £60-£70 premiums, for this grain.”
In East Anglia and the south, growers should concentrate on producing barley with a grain nitrogen of 1.75-1.85%, he continues. “That suits the needs of the maltsters in that part of the world, and will also be suitable for the export market.”
The export market is particularly relevant to growers south of the M4, as there is no longer a maltings in this part of the country, he adds.
“That isn’t a problem, as Germany is always short of barley, and has to import some of its requirement. In fact, the thriving export market has been making it difficult for the home trade.”
Improved varieties have helped to reduce risk, both on farm and in the maltings, stresses Mr Shand. “Introductions such as NFC Tipple and Quench have made a difference. Not only are they higher yielding, they offer better agronomics and grain size. And they process well.”
Tipple is also a “low nitrogen scavenging” variety, which means it takes up less nitrogen and produces a lower-nitrogen grain from the same farming regime.
“With the price of nitrogen today, that’s a bonus,” says Mr Shand. “It has lower input costs. It also means that it can be grown successfully on heavier land.”
UK malting barley has a reputation for quality, consistency and traceability, he ends. “Premiums are good at the moment, but there will always be some volatility. If everyone has a very good year in 2008, they will come down. But growers can still have confidence in the crop – there will continue to be competition for supplies.”
NFC Tipple is making rapid sales progress and is expected to hit a 30% market share in 2008 as growers switch on to its yield, marketing and agronomic benefits, says Robert Hiles of Syngenta Seeds.
Largely at the expense of Optic and Cocktail, which are both tailing off, Tipple has also been joined by its stablemate Quench – the highest-yielding spring malting barley on the HGCA Recommended List.
“Although Optic sales are falling off in England, it is still needed in Scotland by the distillers. Tipple isn’t suitable for their requirements,” says Mr Hiles.
Seed of all three varieties is in very short supply, he warns. “Tipple is virtually sold out and all the Optic has gone, which is causing problems in Scotland.”
Cellar still has a place on the south coast due to its earlier maturity, he adds. “And Publican is an alternative to meet the needs of Scottish growers.”
Recommended List technical manager Bill Handley points out that the brewing industry knows and likes Tipple, making it a safe choice.
Cellar’s better quality remains of interest to brewers, as it fulfils some of their requirements, he adds. “Another new recommendation, Jolika, also has these higher hot water extracts, so in time it may be a natural replacement for Cellar.”
Quench is bound to find a following, notes Mr Handley. “It has the yield, the right grain nitrogens for brewing and good resistance to brackling, which was a problem for Optic growers in 2007.”
Barley area expands on Wiltshire unit
Spring barley is increasingly important in the rotation at Pickwick Lodge Farm, Corsham, Wiltshire.
In six years the crop’s area has risen from 6.5ha (16 acres) to 48.5 (120 acres) – nearly a fifth of farm.
“It allows us to get winter oilseed rape established in good time and into a good seed-bed,” says former Farmer Focus writer James Stafford.
“It spreads harvest and allows us to apply manure from the beef unit during winter.”
It also allows stubbles to be sprayed in autumn and spring to reduce the farm’s blackgrass burden.
Half the crop is used to fatten his 180 cattle. The rest, if it meets the grade, goes for malting. If not it’s sold to other local livestock farmers.
“As we’re not restricted by soil types it fits our rotation – winter oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring barley and second wheat – well,” says Mr Stafford. “If wheat prices hadn’t increased we would have stopped growing second wheats and put all that part of the rotation into spring barley.”
Rhynchosporium and brackling resistance are his main variety choice drivers.
“Last year we grew Westminster and we’ll have the same again in 2008. It ticked all the boxes with lots of straw.” He finds single-purpose seed dressing sufficient.
Seed-bed conditions are more important than sowing date, he believes. “If it means delaying then so be it.
“We budget on 2.5t/acre but have been getting a pleasing 2.75t/acre.
“N-min tests are really important as we are putting on FYM.”
Applying fungicide, including a strobilurin, “little and often” seems to make a huge difference, he adds.