Barley crop a good fit for Virginia grower

The sign in front of Kevin Engel's Hanover, Va. farm aptly describes the Virginia grower's philosophy of farming: “Where we take pride in agriculture.”

Engel heads a large, diversified farming operation that spans several counties north and east of Richmond. Being so spread out presents some significant challenges, especially in today's uncertain financial times.

Farming a large acreage requires a lot of expensive equipment and some expensive labor to operate that equipment. Maximizing the use of both is an ongoing challenge, says the Virginia farmer.

When he was approached by Osage Bio to grow barley for the company's 55,000 million gallon per year barley-powered ethanol plant in nearby Hopewell, Va., Engel was quick to listen. He has grown some barley for a number of years and says the Osage Bio plant will offer him and other Virginia farmers some good cropping options for the future.

“I'm always looking for innovative ways to market my crops — but it has to fit into my overall farming operation. Osage Bio has been upfront in our negotiations and I look forward to working with them with our barley crop. As farmers, we need more opportunities like this to work with companies who are trying to help agriculture,” Engel says.

Engel has about a thousand acres of barley this year and plans to ramp up production more in the 2009-2010 season, which will be the first crop bought by Osage Bio.

Barley allows the Virginia grower to keep planters going longer in the fall, planting barley and going straight into wheat. In the spring, he will start combining barley two weeks or so earlier than wheat. Once his barley is cut, he can go straight into wheat.

“I don't want to own a combine and work it for a month or two a year. I want to work that expensive equipment five or six months, if I can. Barley fits well into our operation to help us maximize our harvesting equipment,” Engel says.

Engle grows most of his barley under irrigation, which he says, is a big boost for the soybeans that follow. “Our best soybeans come after irrigated barley, so we are maximizing our crop yields, and at the same time, maximizing use of our irrigation equipment,” he says.

Typically, in Virginia, top yields will come from full-season beans, followed by double-crop beans behind barley, followed by double-crop beans behind wheat. Though yields will vary from farm to farm based on a number of growing conditions, Engel still contends his double-crop beans behind barley, under irrigation are year-in and year-out as good or better than full season bean yields.

Growing barley is very similar to growing wheat, Engel notes. He starts by deciding whether to use Gramoxone or glyphosate for burn down on weeds and grasses

As soon as possible after burn-down, he comes back with 30 pounds of nitrogen and whatever soil samples call for in sulfur. In early December they come back with a mixture of nitrogen and phosphate, depending on soil test and the price of phosphate.

In February they come back with another 50 pounds of nitrogen and another touch of sulfur. “In all, we end up with 120-130 pounds of nitrogen and 30-50 pounds of sulfur on the barley crop,” Engle says . Typically, carryover of potash from corn is adequate for barley and soybeans.

All of his land has been in continuous no-till for 10-12 years, some longer. There is no doubt, Engel stresses, that he gets better value from his fertilizer the longer his land is in no-till.

“We used to chisel plow, disk it, work it and put out 250 pounds of nitrogen on corn and wind up with 140-150 bushel yields, or worse. The reason was always — you ran out of nitrogen. You could see what we were doing to the organic matter with all the cultivation, and it's taken us 8-10 years to get it back,” Engel says.

He plants barley and wheat behind corn. The corn stubble is sliced and diced using a turbo-tiller over the cornstalks right behind the combine, instead of using a bush-hog. It turns just a little bit of dirt on top of the stalks to help speed up decomposition.

With demand from Osage Bio expected to top 30 million bushels for the 2010 harvest, many growers say the big issue is storage and handling of barley. At a hundred bushels per acre, an extra 250,000 acres of barley is needed to augment the current 50,000 acres planted to meet just the ethanol demand from the Osage Bio plant.

Where to put all that barley, most of which will be cut in May, when corn and soybeans are harvested later in the summer and early fall, is a big question. There is some extra storage from expected reductions in corn acreage in 2009, but much of that will likely be taken up by an expected increase in soybean acreage.

“I look at on-farm storage a little differently. I look at how long I need to keep it for whomever is going to buy it to make it have enough value, where they can use it profitably and I can grow it profitably. If you worry about barley storage competing with soybeans and corn, then you are letting the tail wag the dog. Barley is just as valuable a crop to us as any other crop,” Engel says.

“Barley has to bring in enough money to pay for equipment and labor and all other expenses. If we have to build extra storage for it, that's what we have to do. As long as the value is there to give you the price enhancement to pay for the storage, growers should do it. Obviously, value must be there for corn and soybeans — barley is no different,” he adds.

A question for some farmers is whether Osage Bio will offer enough room in their pricing to pay extra for on-farm storage. Engel says for farmers to invest in on-farm storage they will need some price incentive. “I believe Osage Bio understands this and will bring forth prices to accommodate on-farm storage,” Engel says.

Right now there are not many barley varieties available to growers in the upper Southeast. Virginia, for example, will probably harvest about 50,000 acres of barley in 2009. As demand for barley expands and growers ramp up production, new varieties will likely follow.

Virginia is fortunate to have one of the top small grain breeding programs in the country at Virginia Tech University. The program headed by Carl Griffey is currently looking at a number of both hulled and hulless barley varieties that will be available as area growers ramp up acreage to meet the demand of Osage Bio ethanol plant.

Myriad questions about input costs and commodity prices have slowed cropping decisions to a crawl across the Southeast. For Kevin Engel the picture is a little clearer — a crop has to pay its way, and if it does, like the sign says, it will be grown with pride.

TAGS: Corn
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