Farmers have been called “original environmentalists” because they have always depended on the health and long term productivity of the ecosystems they utilize to make a living for their families. Since the days of the Dust Bowl and subsequent conservation enlightenment, these farm families continue to strive for true sustainability in their businesses. 

As more and more attention is focused on sustainability from Main Street to Wall Street, wheat and barley producers are ready to answer the call and do their part. The inherent nature of wheat and barley makes them ideal crops for many farmers throughout Montana because they require little moisture and chemical inputs compared with competing crops.

Malting barley growers in the United States strive for efficiencies in their operations, leading to continuous sustainable improvements over time. Recent developments in precision farming technologies, soil conservation, and health measures, as well as irrigation efficiencies, have enabled malt barley growers to maximize production using fewer resources over time. In addition, diversification of plant genetics has led to more high quality malt barley being produced in rainfed, or non-irrigated areas.

The Pillars of Sustainability

  • The Pillars of Sustainability: Environmental - Barley in Montana01
    Environmental

    Barley farmers continuously protect and enhance ecosystems through soil health improvements and water conservation to achieve gains in productivity.

  • The Pillars of Sustainability: Economic - Barley in Montana02
    Economic

    Malting barley is a specialty crop that generates good revenues for growers. Farmers make business decisions each day that affect their bottom lines.

  • The Pillars of Sustainability: Social - Barley in Montana03
    Social

    Most malt barley is produced by multi-generational family farms. These families and the businesses that support them are the foundation of communities throughout the U.S.

U.S. barley production (in red) has remained steady over the past ten years, but the amount of planted acres (in blue) in the U.S. has decreased. Growers have maintained productivity through resource optimization and operational efficiency improvements over time.

In addition to traditional plant breeding techniques, barley breeders utilize cutting edge technologies to develop new varieties. Marker assisted selection and gene editing techniques may help speed up development and provide agronomic and end-use quality improvements.

Wild barley (shown here in red) is found in many different growing regions over the world and breeders utilize this natural genetic diversity to achieve improvements. A collection of over 20,000 lines is now in use in breeding programs.

One example of exciting crop research is the recently completed investigations into "intercropping", where malting barley is grown in combination with other plants. These trials have demonstrated success and shown the benefits of new ideas in production agriculture. These results may be further described through a new field of agricultural research which is focused on illuminating the soil microbiome. This work will help growers better understand the interactions among plants, soils and microbiota.

As barley production in the U.S. moved west to more arid climates, water has been, and will always be, a critical input for farmers and the industry as a whole. Growers have continuously improved capacities by investing in systems that conserve energy and water. Irrigation and evapotranspiration research currently underway has the ability to help farmers optimize costly water applications and conserve as much of this vital resource as possible.