Planting spring barley

I have a bad blogging habit of procrastinating until I can present a single complete account of our process and outcome. As a result, my posts tend to sit in the drafts folder for months until I’ve collected all the relevant data and can muster the motivation to knock out a couple thousand words and a pie chart. Last summer we grew trial plots of three grains (amaranth, sorghum, flint corn) but none of them have made it onto the blog yet. I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf this year and report on our latest grain crop as it happens.

I’m fascinated by the process of growing grains, perhaps because it seems more like ‘real’ farming or because it requires specialized tools to harvest and process. Whatever the reason, my project grain this year is barley.

Handful of barley seed

The case for barley

Barley is a pretty ideal grain for small scale growing. It produces large yields with minimal water and nutrient inputs and competes well against typical weeds. The resultant grain can be used as a livestock feed, consumed as a nutritious cereal or flour, or malted to make beer. My particular interest lies with malted barley.

There are two main types of barley: 2-row and 6-row. Two-row barley has only two rows of kernels down each grain spike. The kernels tend to be slightly larger and more uniform in 2-row, with higher levels of starch, lower levels of protein, and moderate enzyme levels. When making beer, the enzymes are used during the mashing process to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Two-row barley is often used by craft breweries. Six-row barley is pretty much the opposite on each point: smaller kernels with greater yield, lower levels of starch, more protein, and high enzyme levels. You should grow 6-row barley if you plan to eat it, feed it to an animal, or sell it to the BMC Beer Monopoly.

On a totally unrelated note, the barley genome was sequenced in 2012.

Like most grains, it’s difficult to find a desired barley variety in appropriate quantities for home-scale plots. When I first looked for barley 3 years ago, I bought a 5 lb bag of Conlon 2-row Barley (a malting variety) from Johnny’s. Shipping barley seed over from Maine was kind of ridiculous since our nearby Oregon State University has a breeding program devoted to barley. They’ve created the Barley World website to promote their work and provide quick guides to growing their varieties at home. Now if only they sold the seed!

Tilled field

Plot preparation

I didn’t want to turn our whole garden into a barley field, so I tilled up a new area just outside the garden perimeter. The plot ended up being 22′ by 67′, which is 1474 sq ft or almost exactly 1/30th of an acre. Sizing plots to be some reasonable fraction of an acre is convenient when calculating fertilizer rates. I read through the University of Idaho’s spring barley reference and compared each nutrient guideline against the results of our most recent soil test. As it turned out, our soil was more than sufficient for growing barley without modification. The one exception was sulfur, which leeches away in the winter rains. Conveniently, I had tracked down a bag of elemental sulfur last year to use in pH modifying the soil around our blueberries.

Sulfur bag ripped open by a rodent

Inconveniently, a rodent chewed a hole in the bag during the winter and when I picked it up sulfur went everywhere. Now the dirt under our tractor port has been pH modified too.

The chart showed that I needed to apply one pound of sulfur to the barley plot. I didn’t want this to lower the pH any (it’s presently an acceptable 6.1), so I added six pounds of lime to my fertilizer dose for good measure. Somewhere out there a university extension has written a document about computing liming rates to correct for acidifying fertilizers, but I haven’t found it. I spread these 7 lbs using a portable broadcast spreader.

Seeding barley

While most grain crops would also require some kind of nitrogen supplement to maximize yield, the existing tilled organic matter should be sufficient for our barley. Too much nitrogen causes high protein levels in malting barley, which leads to cloudy beer and can complicate the mashing process.

I suspect that April 9th is a little late to plant spring barley, but most guides say “as soon as the soil is workable.” It rains a lot here in the spring. Tough. Maybe next year I’ll plant in the fall when the weather is more predictable. I spread my 5 lbs of seed using the same broadcast spreader, making multiple passes to get an even distribution. This worked out to a planting rate of 150 lbs/acre, which is well above the recommended rate (85-100 lbs/acre). Then again, my seed was 3 years old. If any of it germinated I was going to be surprised. Barley likes to be planted about 1″ deep, but can tolerate deeper or shallower planting. To avoid feeding the birds, I buried the seeds by tilling the plot one last time on the shallowest setting. It rained the day after I planted and turned cold for a week. Barley is cool with that.

It’s alive!

I wasn’t terribly confident that any of the seed would sprout. I considered my options for explaining the patch of bare earth to inquisitive neighbors. Tilling practice? Crop rectangles? Quadratic wildfire?

To my surprise, by April 18th there was a fuzz of green sprouts which were too uniform and succulent to be normal grass. A few days later, we were certain the barley was sprouting. As of April 24th, the plants are about 2 inches high and many have reached the two leaf stage. Less than 3 months until harvest!

Barley at 2 weeks

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with the barley if it matures. I’m sure we could hand harvest a plot of this size, but threshing is another matter. You really need a specialized machine for threshing, because the old method using a flail was extremely labor intensive. Our little 1/30th acre plot could yield about 100 lbs of barley. That’s enough grain to make 50 gallons of beer, which would be great while it lasted but what would we drink the other 11 months of the year?

Barley resources

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11 Responses to Planting spring barley

  1. Phil says:

    “Thatā€™s enough grain to make 50 gallons of beer, which would be great while it lasted but what would we drink the other 11 months of the year?” LOL If only we could skip the middleman and just harvest the beer šŸ™‚ Keep us updated on the barley…. sounds like it’s doing well!

    How was your experience with sorghum? I was think of doing a little test of that one.

    • lee says:

      I’m trying to picture how beer grain would work. Perhaps you’d crush it to ring out the beer.

      It was our second year growing sorghum. I have been selecting a strain of multi-color broom corn (a decorative variety) to favor longer brushes with the idea of making brooms. I don’t know if I’ll replant my strain though, as I’ve since found that broom-specific sorghums are still available. Sorghum grows more quickly and with less water and fertilizer inputs than field corn. Our geese love the thinnings and tillers early in the season, and the chickens love the sorghum seed. It seems like a nice multi-purpose crop, since you can use them as decoration, for crafts, and as animal feed. We didn’t grow a sweet sorghum, so I can’t comment on syrup production.

  2. So where’s the pie chart?

    I love your science-based approach, even though it makes me feel like such a bumbler, spreading compost and all-purpose fertilizer and hoping for the best. I also admire your fortitude, tackling a grain crop. I’ve always thought of those as Exhibit A in the Case Against Growing Your Own Food. When the time comes, may I suggest a threshing party? If I were closer, I’d come.

    • lee says:

      Alas, no pie chart. Actually, I have yet to think of a data point related to barley which would even warrant a pie chart.

      We are generally compost, all-purpose-fertilizer, and hope-for-the-best gardeners too. Grains are such a well studied crop, and I just happened to have recent soil tests lying around, that it seemed like a fun experiment. I felt pretty doubtful around mid-May though, when the barley started to look a bit yellow. Fortunately, we had a big week of rain soon after, and the barley has perked up and is growing. It’s pretty sparse compared to the native grass, so I think a threshing party will be overkill at this point.

  3. Snowbrush says:

    Let’s see, fifty gallons a month for the three of you…that must come to about thirty gallons per person and fifty gallons for the occasional friend, leaving twenty gallons left over, so it looks to me like you could go the better part of two months….Still, that’s not enough for a year, is it? Have you thought of buying more land? Darn, my calculator just went to sleep on me. Brewsky! Wake up!

    • lee says:

      I’m not sure I follow any of your math, but if you taking advice from Brewsky that might explain the confusion. We can only get one barley crop per year without irrigating, so that’s 50 gallons of beer per year (not per month). Of course, my numbers assumed only 1/30th of an acre planted. We have at least 2 acres of unused open pasture if I wanted to expand the barley plot.

  4. Johnny says:

    Looks good to me. I’m down here in Southwestern Oregon and have grown Alba 6-row winter barley for two years running with good success using the fast over the top tilling planting method you used. I harvest with my 4′ cycle bar mower with a catcher on the back. Threshing amounted to crushing the heads under my shoes over a large tarp. I want to move up to the next level on treshing.
    I’m trying to obtain some Maris Otter seed from the UK and have a buddy over there who promised he would see what he could find in the Midlands. Got my fingers crossed.
    This year’s barley looks good but in addition I am wanting to plant a 2-row spring barley soon. That’s the catch. Hard to find. Yes Johnny’s sells Conlon. I’m going to stop by Crop Science at OSU at the end of this month to see what they might spare … if anything.
    Malting is still touch and go. I’m doing okay but want to obtain a better yield. Need help there.
    We’re pretty sophisticated in our brewing which we do about once a month in Medford at my buddies garage.

    • lee says:

      What a great comment! I’m sorry I missed it when you first posted this.

      Threshing is a common problem for all the grains I’ve grown thus far. I plan to eventually build a clone of the treadle threshers you can find online. I recently watched a YouTube from the North East Rice Project that described some easy simplifications to build one of them.

      I’d be cautious of informally importing any seeds. The USDA is pretty ruthless about tracking down imports that have not gone through the appropriate quarantine and grow-out procedure, especially for crops which are important to U.S. agriculture.

      Since I wrote this article, OSU is finally selling small quantities of their barley varieties to the public. When I grow my next plot of barley, I’ll probably source seed that way. It’s pretty cool that you’ve managed to test out the whole process, from plant in the field to malted and mashed grain.

  5. Williammake says:

    Very neat article post. Really Cool.

  6. Mark Allen says:

    When I lived in Costa Rica I watched a small farm harvest red beans. I think the same method would work for your barley. Buy a big tarp, and spread the cut stalks on the tarp, and leave them there to dry. Then beat the stalks with a flat shovel or a rake. Then remove the stalks, and winnow the kernals from the chaff. Not the most efficient method, but cheap. I think a canvas tarp would be best since moisture would be able to seep through it.

    • lee says:

      Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve considered something similar here, but the weather isn’t very friendly. Oregon weather is dry all summer and then right at harvest time the rains start to hit. Eventually I’d like to set up a greenhouse and that would provide a nice dry space for the sort of threshing operation you describe.

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