March 22, 2006 | By: Laura Skillman

Removing the hull from barley in the field can mean reducing transportation and processing costs while putting more kernels on the truck to haul to market.

“New hull-less barley lines have the potential to reclaim diminished animal feed markets and develop new markets for Kentucky’s small grain growers,” said Bill Bruening, coordinator of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s small grain variety testing program. New hull-less varieties and experimental lines are being evaluated annually by the UK program.

Barley was once a fairly prominent grain crop in Kentucky, but demand and acreage for the hulled grain has dramatically declined. That could change, however, if hull-less barley varieties show potential in Kentucky.

Barley production peaked at more than 120,000 acres in the mid 1950s when barley was considered a good feed source for livestock. The substantial decline in production has been due to a lack of demand as distillers’ grains increased in availability and poultry and swine enterprises became more integrated and demanded lower fiber, higher energy diets. Hulled barley is useful in the malting industry, but Kentucky’s climate is not suitable for producing quality malting barley.

In traditional hulled barley, the fibrous hull attached to the grain accounts for 15 percent of the grain weight, which reduces the overall protein and carbohydrate content, Bruening said. With hull-less barley, the hull is discarded during the harvesting process much like wheat, resulting in a low-fiber, nutrient-dense grain ideal for animal feed.

“We believe that hull-less barley has the potential to recapture a share of the lost feed market and to develop new, alternative markets,” he said. “That’s why researchers at Virginia Tech University have developed a hull-less barley breeding project, which has been funded in part by the Kentucky Small Grain Growers’ Association.”

Hull-less barley development has stimulated interest in its use for ethanol production and human food and nutraceutical industries. Several U.S. ethanol plants are utilizing hull-less barley as a feedstock for ethanol production, Bruening said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been evaluating it for ethanol production and its primary co-product – the nutrient-rich distillers’ dried grains.

In addition, the USDA is studying the health-promoting effects of compounds within barley, such as beta-glucan which has been shown to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and improve immune functions in humans, he said. Barley phytosterols have also been shown to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in humans.

“Researchers believe nutrient-rich barley fractions can be added to traditional processed products such as pasta, bread, or snack foods for health benefits,” he said.

UK’s program is evaluating the performance of traditional hulled and hull-less varieties and advanced breeding lines from Virginia Tech’s program. This year they are evaluating 25 advanced lines, which have shown potential in terms of yield, test weight, lodging and disease resistance. Several of these lines may be released as commercial varieties.

It has been found that the yield and test weight are similar to wheat. Hull-less barley has a test weight of 60-pounds per bushel versus 48 pounds per bushel for hulled, which will increase the value per bushel and reduce volumetric transportation cost, Bruening said.

Barley is not as cold tolerant as wheat, and production is primarily in southern and western Kentucky. Production practices are similar to wheat, but barley can be harvested two to three weeks earlier than wheat. In Kentucky’s double-crop system, planting soybeans behind barley can eliminate or minimize the soybean yield penalty associated with late planting behind wheat.

“If the profitability of barley production increased and we got our soybeans in on time, that could really impact double-crop profitability,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting a better price for the barley. We just need an increased demand for barley and the availability of improved hull-less varieties.”

Both hulled and hull-less barley performance evaluation will be an important part of the UK small grain variety testing program.

“Our work will provide growers with variety performance information and facilitate the release of new varieties,” Bruening said. “Yield, test weight, lodging resistance, plant height and maturity are evaluated for each variety.”

Additionally, nitrogen fertility research on hull-less barley will be funded by UK’s New Crop Opportunities Center through a USDA Special Grant. The work will begin next growing season and has the potential to reduce production costs by evaluating the nitrogen requirements of hull-less barley.

“The only reason we grow traditional hulled barley is because that’s what we are accustomed to, and there are several proven varieties available,” Bruening said. “I think it will take some time for the markets to develop and people to get used to this idea, but with the availability of improved varieties I think the future is going to be in hull-less barley.


Bill Bruening, (859) 257-5020, ext. 80802