We need a steady supply of high-quality barley to brew our products. Climate change, limited water availability and economic pressures on barley farms can affect our long-term access to barley. To meet current and future challenges in our barley supply chain, the MillerCoors research and development team focuses on developing new:
Winter-hardy barley varieties
Dry land barley varieties that can be grown without irrigation
Irrigation techniques and other agricultural practices for barley farming
Research and Development Team
The MillerCoors research and development team of agricultural scientists, cereal chemists, agronomists, maltsters and brewers is focused on improving barley varieties and agricultural practices with the long-term goal of sustaining our supply chain for malting quality barley.
We are developing new barley varieties by targeting select traits to:
Introduce shorter, stronger stems to increase the “standability” of the barley plant — standability means the barley can remain upright under all growing conditions so that it will fill with the maximum number of barley seeds, thereby increasing yield
Optimize the protein concentrations in barley and reduce variability in protein concentrations from year to year — protein concentration is critical to barley quality
Improve the reliability of the barley crop over a range of growing conditions, including cold winters and dry conditions
Once we develop new barley varieties or agricultural practices, we test them on our company research farms. On our 160-acre farm in southern Idaho and our 1,200-acre irrigated farm in southern Colorado, we test different farming techniques and strategies and implement best practices for growing our thousands of experimental barley lines, as well as our MillerCoors Moravian barley varieties. We start by evaluating small plots of barley. When the results of a particular trial look promising, we expand to larger field trials to validate our results.
By developing and testing new barley varieties and agricultural techniques, we can increase barley yields, improve barley quality and increase consistency from year to year. Through the help of our research and development team, 97 percent of our growers’ barley met our high standards in 2011. Our ultimate objective is to find new barley varieties and agricultural techniques that support the goals of the entire barley supply chain beginning with our growers and ending with our brewers.
Barley varieties with greater cold tolerance can survive the winter, which benefits our growers, MillerCoors and the environment. Winter-hardy barley increases yields, reduces water requirements and provides continual ground cover that reduces soil erosion and improves water quality.
In the U.S. we have a nearly century-old tradition of breeding spring-malting barley varieties. By comparison, breeding winter barley varieties is in its infancy. During 2008 and 2009, MillerCoors evaluated “Charles,” a new barley variety developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service team in Aberdeen, Idaho. Charles exhibited moderate winter-hardiness and a malting quality that met our high standards, but Charles was prone to skinned and broken kernels, low test weights and lower malt house yields. Although Charles was not a perfect solution, the barley breeding, malting and brewing communities considered the development of Charles a major accomplishment. Building on that initial success, we developed a plan in 2011 to test two newer varieties, “Endeavor” and “Maja,” that may exhibit even greater winter tolerance along with improved yields. Looking to the future, our research team recently initiated a small program in Idaho to evaluate fall-planted experimental barley lines for their winter survival rates and malting qualities.
Dry Land Varieties
To reduce reliance on water in barley production, we are continuing to develop and test dry land barley varieties — barley varieties that can be grown without irrigation. In 2011, we conducted a brewing trial to evaluate “Amsterdam,” a dry land barley variety developed by Montana State University. The trial was successful, and we are now planning the next steps towards approving the variety for use in our beers. Also in 2011, we continued to make good progress in our research to develop Moravian malting barley varieties for dry land production. Through our annual barley selection process, we advanced promising experimental lines to larger-scale field trials. We will assess their adaptation to dry land and evaluate their malt quality. We plan to test these Moravian experimental varieties in brewing trials in the coming years.
Precision Irrigation Techniques
Barley requires ample water to develop the high quality needed for brewing beer, but a number of our barley-growing regions are water-stressed. We experimented with precision irrigation techniques to grow high-quality barley with less water. In 2011, we partnered with the Nature Conservancy to test multiple water conservation practices on a Showcase Barley Farm in Silver Creek Valley, Idaho.
The Showcase Barley Farm used specially modified pivot irrigation systems to minimize the amount of water used to grow crops of barley and alfalfa in 2011. In the first year of the farm, precision irrigation techniques actually increased crop yields while reducing demand for energy and water. In one year, the farm saved 124.5 million gallons of water, which is enough water to meet the needs of a family of four for more than 850 years . The water savings equates to a 9 percent reduction in total water use for a farm that uses more than a billion gallons of water a season. Through more efficient irrigation techniques, the farm decreased demand for pumping water and, therefore, decreased the energy needed to power the pumps. By pumping less, the farm reduced total energy usage 10 to 20 percent in a single year, a significant savings for a farm that historically spent $120,000 per year on energy. Not only are these irrigation techniques good for the environment, they are good for farmers’ bottom lines.
Our next steps are to share the successes from our Showcase Barley Farm. Interested farmers are invited to tour the showcase farm to observe these conservation practices first-hand and use them as models for their own farms. In 2011, 150 people toured the farm. In 2012, we will begin putting together a plan to expand this pilot program and target areas in our agricultural supply chain that are most at risk.
By developing new barley varieties and improving agriculture production systems, we have improved barley yield and quality over time. The increase in yield is achieved without increasing water usage. As a result, our growers are able to produce more barley with less water.
In Idaho, barley yields increased 35 percent since the 1970s, from 100 bushels per acre to 135 bushels per acre. Improved barley yields in 2011 saved 7.35 billion gallons of water relative to our barley yields in the 1970s. That is enough water to meet the domestic water needs for more than 20,000 people in the U.S. for 10 years.
Efficiency in Barley Breeding
Breeding for superior barley varieties is a lengthy process. Our research and development team is now working on a plan to more efficiently select elite barley varieties that exhibit key traits such as increased yields, disease resistance and hardiness, as well as malting qualities that meet our high standards. We are using sophisticated selection techniques and new technology to more quickly develop barley varieties and establish consistent breeding lines. We are hopeful that by applying new barley breeding tools, we will more quickly release new barley varieties that further support our sustainability goals.