Barley for the feed market

7 May 2014

Much of the work which AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds gets involved in revolves around milling wheat and malting barley. As the key premium markets available to growers, it is likely correct that the focus should be in these areas – however almost half of the cereal tonnage produced in the UK ends up in the feed bin.

In Scotland, feed grain is our single largest market taking around 45% of the cereals produced – almost 1m tonnes of barley, with wheat and oats taking up around 125k tonnes and 20k tonnes respectively.

There is no doubt in today’s economic circumstance, with high value carcasses and high input costs, that the faster an animal is finished then the higher the margin per animal will be.  The exception may be where there is native bred genetics and the animal is reared outside on upland grazing.

Whatever the nutritional value of the ration, the maintenance requirements are fixed on a daily basis with any surplus going to live-weight gain – the challenge in finishing beef cattle efficiently is to minimise the number of days you are paying the maintenance element, and maximise the kgs of beef produced for each day you have to pay that maintenance element. Does that make sense?

To do that, firstly you have to have the right quality of cattle – if you do, then you have to give them good quality feed at a level which matches their genetic potential to produce live-weight gain.  To achieve this, there is no better product readily available to Scottish farmers than barley – so does it make better sense to look at a higher inclusion rate in rations, and encourage Scottish growers to produce specifically for the feed market?

By-products are perfectly suited to store and breeding rations, but in my experience will struggle to match the performance of barley to maximise daily live-weight gain in finishing animals.   This might be an option when costs / values were low – an extra 30 days to finish wasn’t such an additional cost – but perhaps not now.

Around 25% of the barley sown in Scotland is of a feed variety, yet feed accounts for over 50% of barley output. There are likely several reasons for this anomaly, but the bottom line is that there are a number of farms planting malting varieties that have little chance of achieving malting quality due to climate, soil type, location etc.

So why is that a problem given growers will get feed price anyway?

  • It detracts from the quality of the national malting sample, impacting on the efficiency of the malting process.
  • There is currently a 5% yield penalty between the top yielding feed variety and the equivalent malting – twice that if you are growing Concerto.
  • There is the opportunity to reduce fungicide use if using feed varieties; for example Shada has improved ratings for rhynchosporium and ramularia and the same for mildew as Concerto.
  • Yield potential could be compromised by the need to hold back N rates for malting quality.
  • Rejected malting barley can incur significant charges, dropping the net price below feed values.

Malting barley remains the most important market for Scottish growers – it pays a good premium; it is a growing market; it is a local market; Scottish growers are skilled producers of malting quality barley.

However the feed market should also be given consideration, and there are a number of questions that growers can ask themselves before costing out the difference between producing malting or feed barley.

  1. Do the growing conditions on my farm allow me a high probability of achieving malting quality?
  2. Will I compromise yield by restricting N use, and if so, by how much?
  3. What disease(s) is a particular problem on my farm?
  4. What tonnage of malting barley can I comfortably handle at harvest?
  5. Is there a local farm market for feed grain I can tap into, reducing marketing costs?

By creating two distinct markets, rather than one plus a default, then the direction of research and plant breeding can also be influenced – why is barley the Rolls-Royce feed for finishing ruminants? Is there an opportunity to fine tune it further and improve the returns to growers?

By defining the individual markets, we will not only encourage the development of both markets, but focus the growing skills on each of those markets and hopefully improve both the quality of the end product and the efficiency of the growing process – thereby improving the sustainability of the whole supply chain.

Barley For The Feed Market Image

Gavin Dick - Scotland

Gavin Dick - Scotland

AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Manager (Scotland). Previously a business specialist with SAC, working to broaden farmers’ business management skills.