Almost 2 years prior to harvesting barley the planning begins. Selecting the proper field and making sure all the nutrients are in the soil that are required for the barley seed to develop. Also making sure there aren't an over abundance of some which can cause problems also. Variety selection is important because Maltsters and brewers are very selective as to what works for them. Field selection comes down to soil type, topography and previous crops and weed control. A clean field free of weeds not only helps with yield but also even maturity and the best use of available limiting factors.
These limiting factors are available "food" for the barley like fertilizer both naturally occurring and applied. Moisture is a big one and usually translates directly into yield. Too much moisture causes losses through drowning out in the low spots as well as a greater occurrence of disease. Too little moisture and it's obvious what will happen with hill tops dying off and lower quality seed where there are some.
Once everything is decided, seed is cleaned and in the bin and all other inputs are in storage you patiently wait till spring. I like to seed my barley as soon as the ground warms up. The earlier seeded barley does quite well missing most of the August heat we normally get here in Central Alberta. Having the heads and seed close to fully developed going into the middle of August helps with plumpness of the seed as well as yield. I seed about 1.5 inches maximum depth with barley and even shallower if the moisture is right there. This allows the seed to pop out of the ground quicker.
So the seeds in the ground and then you watch it grow. Scouting the field during the growing season is important. I check all fields quite regularly looking for good weed control and checking for the presence of disease and pests. Plant health translates to seed health so I do this in all my crops as do most farmers. If all goes well I let the barley plant do its thing and I just sit back and watch till harvest.
Harvest timing is crucial. Plant maturity can come on quickly and recognizing when to harvest can be tricky some years. Green plants can delay an otherwise dry crop from being harvested so this is where field selection can make a difference. Low areas can cause headaches but some years can be your best yield so you need to consider this in harvest timing. Also green seeds can cause your barley to be rejected for malt and then it will need to be sold as feed at a lower price. Barley has to be around 13.5% seed moisture to be accepted so you test the field a little at a time till you get to that point. Some farmers use driers to bring it down to that % but this can be an added expense so I haven't purchased one yet. I straight cut or swath my barley and it depends on the year. If there is even maturity and good straw maturity I will straight cut which is using a cutter on the front of the combine. In other years I use a swather to cut and allow it to sit till its dry and then use a pick up on the front of combine. Either way works great most years.
The settings on the combine are important. Heavy losses can occur in yield and quality and do happen if you don't take the time to check and double check. I leave a bit of the beard on the seed so as not to damage the germ end. I also check losses behind the combine because it's a huge amount of straw and chaff going through and it's easy to overload the cleaning capacity of the machine. The harvested seed is placed in a truck and hauled to an aeration bin at the farm. I run air through it immediately to help to remove any moisture in the sweat period and also to cool the seed for long term storage. Usually below 15 Celsius is a good storage temperature. Good samples are taken continuously while the seed was unloaded into the bin. These are what is sent in to the malt company and they make their decisions based on these representative samples so I make sure to do a good accurate job of taking these.
The samples are sent in right away to give them time to look at them and once they run them through they get back to me with the news either good or bad. They look at dryness (13.5% or lower) protein, germ, chit(partial germinating and dying off in the head or storage) plumpness of the seed, bushel weight, and overall quality of the seed. Then if all things are good you get the ok and then you wait till they are ready to malt your barley. When they are ready for it you truck it in and if all specifications are still met your golden!
From there breweries from across the world can then access my barley and make the tasty beer we all enjoy. Craft breweries use a large amount of malt barley and are a growing business here in Alberta and I'm thankful for their success and try to support them regularly :)
Barley has been an important part of our farm for about 60 years so this year I plan on sharing the journey barley takes from cleaning the seed at my farm to the bottle, can or glass in bars across the world. Stay tuned on twitter at my profile @kowalchukfarms and the hashtag #KowalchukFarmsBarley to see what I do on the farm to help out in the creation of the best beers in the world with in my opinion the best barley in the world grown with care on our farms right here in Central Alberta.😉
Update: So 2018 saw lower than normal rainfall in my area. This accounted for lower barley yields but the quality was actually quite good. With 11.7 protein and good germ and good quality my whole production was accepted as malt. So even though there was less production I'm very happy with the quality that was there. I did post updates on twitter throughout the year under the hash tag #KowalchukFarmsBarley as I went through all the steps to grow and manage a malt barley crop. The Alberta craft beer we are consuming now very well could have some of my 2017 production in it and as long as the quality remains good in storage next year we could be drinking a beer containing Kowalchuk Farms barley from this years crop in 2019!