Barley Production in Alberta: Harvesting

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 Whole plant barley silage | Dry barley for green feed | Harvesting high moisture barley | Dry barley as a feed grain | Harvesting barley for malt | Harvesting lodged barley | Storage of barley

Whole Plant Barley Silage

Most varieties of barley may be harvested to provide silage. Harvesting the entire barley plant utilizes the maximum amount of growth produced per unit area. It advances the normal date of harvest about two weeks and provides an opportunity to market the crop as fodder rather than as grain. However, the market for silage must be relatively close as transport of high moisture material is quite expensive.

Harvesting for silage should begin when the barley heads are well filled and the grain is in the late soft-dough stage -- when it contains 55-65 per cent moisture. Crops that are cut when they contain more than 65 per cent moisture should be allowed to field-wilt to that stage before being chopped and ensiled. Chopped barley that contains 55-65 per cent moisture will form a loose ill-defined ball when it is squeezed in the hand, The ball will fall apart gradually as it is released. It should not be possible to squeeze any appreciable amount of moisture from the ball. Water will usually ooze out of a ball of chopped barley that contains more than 70 per cent of moisture. Plants that contain less than 55 per cent moisture will seldom maintain a proper ball form after being squeezed in the hand and will not pack properly in the pit.

As the barley crop matures from heading to the soft-dough stage, the amount of dry matter harvested increases at a rate of about 1.12 tonnes/hectare per week (0.50 ton/acre/week). Although the protein content of the plants decreases as they mature, the total protein production per unit area, and the total digestible energy per unit area, peaks when the grain is in the soft-dough stage.

Barley crops that are harvested for silage at the soft-dough stage will yield about 20 tonnes/hectare wet forage (63% moisture) or about 7.3 tonnes/hectare dry matter (9 tons/acre wet, and 3.25 tons/acre dry). Extremely heavy crops grown on well-managed irrigated land will yield considerably more forage. Under average summer conditions, silage barley will yield almost as much as silage corn in most areas of Alberta. Newer, shorter season corn varieties can be very productive. In southeastern Alberta, where high temperatures often prevail or under a hot summer in Central Alberta corn silage will significantly outyield silage barley. Costs of producing corn silage are much higher than for barley silage and the higher yields are needed to bring costs/tonne of silage to within or below barley silage costs.

Barley cut for silage should be handled quickly and carefully and may be stored in sealed silos, conventional tower silos, silage bags, horizontal silos or in piles. The usual precautions for making high quality silage must be observed. Packing the plant material in the silo to exclude air is imperative. Mixing of additives to chopped barley as it goes into the silo, can increase protein content, promote pickling,and/ or reduce dry matter losses. The relative and absolute values of the various additives that are available should be investigated thoroughly before they are used extensively.

Dry Barley for Green Feed

Barley may be harvested as an annual forage crop to provide dry green feed. For maximum yields consistent with good quality and acceptable palatability, it should be cut at about the late soft- dough stage. More mature plants will yield slightly more fodder, but may be less palatable to livestock with reduced protein levels.

The crop may be cut with a conventional forage harvester or swather and allowed to field-dry in the swath or windrow. When the swaths are dry about 16% moisture, the material can be baled in round bales. For large square bales, moisture levels should be at 12-14% moisture.

In the Brown soil zone, irrigated barley generally yields more forage than oats or spring wheat. However, in the Black and Grey-wooded soil zones, in a wet year, oats will probably out-yield barley. Most varieties should yield about 7 to 8 tonnes/hectare (3 to 4 tons/acre) dry matter. Silage yield varies tremendously, depending on inputs and moisture conditions. Barley can produce up to 5 tons/acre/dry matter under high nutrient availability and good growing conditions.

Smooth-awned (beards) or semi-smooth awned varieties may be preferable to the rough-awned varieties as feed. This is due to occasional livestock problems related to feeding the current varieties of the rough-awned type. To ensure proper nutrition, cattle fed barley forage should also receive about 1 per cent limestone and appropriate amounts of vitamin A. Dry whole-plant barley forage rations will provide about the same amounts of digestible energy as alfalfa, and slightly more than timothy hay in cattle rations. Alfalfa forage contains more protein than barley forage. The feed quality of barley greenfeed will vary from year to year due to weather conditions and physiological maturity at harvest and feed testing is recommended to get the most from any forage.

Harvesting High Moisture Barley

As an optional management practice, or where late-sown grain may fail to mature, or where poor drying conditions prevail at harvest time, barley may be harvested when the grain contains 25- 35 per cent moisture. At the present time 30 per cent moisture seems ideal. Such grain is handled, stored and utilized as high moisture feed grain. It is essential that the moisture level be maintained closed to 30% at harvest and ensiling and water may need to be added to each load to keep it close to the 30%. This can be tricky as the crop dries throughout the day.

High moisture barley is usually combine harvested directly from the standing grain without swathing. The entire crop, including green patches, is harvested. It can usually be harvested about 7 to 10 days earlier than mature dry grain but this will vary from season to season and between localities.

Since slightly immature grain stands more erect than full mature grain, high moisture barley can usually be cut 7-15 cm higher than mature barley.

Harvested high moisture barley is generally handled in large elevators or with frontend loaders because it fails to flow like dry grain. It must be stored in oxygen-excluding silos. The barley is often rolled prior to being stored or it may be stored as whole grain.

Yields of high moisture barley are usually 7 to 10 per cent larger, on a dry matter basis, than those of mature grain, primarily because fewer small, light-weight, and cracked kernels are lost in harvest. There is some evidence that six-row varieties yield slightly more high moisture grain than two-row varieties, for the same reason. The higher yields may be due in part to the fact that moist grain will not crack, grind or peel as readily as dry grain, thus cutting losses and increasing yields.

The advantages and disadvantages of harvesting barley as high moisture grain may be:

1. Harvest advanced 7 to 10 days
2. Less chance of storm damage to crop
3. Harvest entire crop -no patches left
4. Swathing eliminated
5. More weed seeds harvested and used as feed
6. Short-strawed varieties easier to harvest
7. Increased yield of dry matter
8. Longer post-harvest period to allow for weed growth and control
9. More acceptable as feed, if processed, resulting in earlier gains
10. Provides opportunity to reclaim hailed barley at an earlier date after being damaged
11. Earlier resumption of harvest following wet weather
12. Earlier harvest means greater availability of custom machinery if needed
13. Residual straw may be more palatable to livestock and have higher protein content
14. Alternative market potential
15. No dust in the feed
16. Reduced incidence of bloat and rumenitis

1. Slower harvesting
2. Greater weight of crop to handle
3. Special handling equipment necessary
4. Special storage necessary
5. Restricted market potential
6. Greater risk of spoilage and loss than with dry grain
7. Difficulty in keeping the grain within the desired moisture range.
8. May be less acceptable as feed unless it is processed.

Dry Barley as a Feed Grain

Straight combining
Feed barley should be harvested as soon as the grain contains less than 14.5 per cent moisture. Malt barley should be harvested when the grain contains less than 13.5 per cent moisture. In Alberta, where growing seasons are relatively long, and warm dry harvest weather prevails, such mature barley may be combine harvested directly from the standing grain. When kernel moisture content is less than about 14.5 per cent (13.5 per cent for malt) it may be better and more economical to straight combine rather than to swath before harvesting. Severe grain losses through wind shattering can occur in some barley varieties that are allowed to stand and become "dead-ripe". Six-rowed varieties are usually more susceptible to head breaking than two-rowed varieties. More producers are starting to straight combine to gain quality. If grain drying facilities are available and it makes economic sense, harvesting can even start when the crop is damp at 17% moisture. Standing barley crops tend to resist weathering damage better than crops lying in a swath. This has helped producers obtain malt barley quality on many occasions, when neighbors who swathed their barley did not have it selected for malt.

Feed barley crops that are excessively weedy should not be straight combined unless all weeds are dry and ripe or have been desiccated with a preharvest herbicide. Green, moist weed seeds and plant parts, that may be harvested with otherwise ripe, dry barley, may heat in storage and lead to spoilage.

Barley crops with late secondary growth of stems and immature heads should not be straight combined. The presence of green colored immature shrunken kernels in other wise good quality grain may lead to reduced market grades. Occasionally, it is possible to cut above the green growth, but generally it is better to swath the entire crop and gain the advantage of the added yield.

In central and northern Alberta, most barley crops must be harvested under less than ideal weather conditions. Crops tend to mature less uniformly and may be damaged by excessive moisture or early frosts. Although straight cutting of all crops, including barley has gained popularity, it is all possible due to a preharvest application of glyphosate, evening up crop maturity. However, the use of glyphosate still required at least 2 weeks, or more, from the crop to dry down prior to harvest.

Swathing feed barley
Feed barley can usually be swathed 5 to 10 days before it can be harvested by straight combining. Swathing reduces losses from insects, from shattering, from hail and frost, and eliminates problems associated with harvesting grain with green undergrowth and green kernels. Barley may be swathed without loss of yield or volume weight as soon as most of the crop has turned from green to light brown or buff color, and the kernels contain less than 40 per cent moisture. Grain intended for seed should contain less than 35 per cent moisture before being swathed. Kernel moisture should be determined with a reliable moisture meter on representative grain samples from the entire field. Kernels that contain about 40 per cent moisture are in the firm dough stage. They can be flattened by squeezing between the thumb and forefinger, but no beads of moisture will appear in the squashed dough.

At swathing time, some small patches of less mature, slightly green barley will usually be present, but this should also be cut. Some varieties of barley develop a slightly purple or pink color as they mature and ripen for swathing.

Barley should be swathed at a height of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches) so as to lay a windrow that is light enough to dry readily if rained on and to decrease the combine straw load by leaving as much stubble as possible. However, stubble height in excess of 20 cm may lack the necessary strength to support the swath. The swath should be heavy enough and overlapped sufficiently to feed continuously when it is picked up by the combine. The heads of the grain should be laid under the straw to protect them from bleaching. The width of the windrow should be adjusted to effectively utilize the capacity of the combine that will be used to harvest the crop. To avoid shattering and loss of grain at the cutter bar, the swather's reel speed must be adjusted to the forward speed of the machine.

Combining swathed feed barley
Normally, feed barley swaths can be combine harvested 4 to 7 days after being swathed, but this depends on kernel moisture content at swathing time and prevailing weather conditions. Swaths that are held high on the standing stubble dry most quickly, especially in warm, dry, breezy weather. They should be picked up and threshed as soon as kernel moisture content decreases to 14.5 per cent (13.5 per cent for malt) and safe storage is assured, or slightly higher moisture content and aerated.

Harvesting Barley for Malt

Maltsters require mature, plump, uniform barley that will germinate vigorously and uniformly. They do not want skinned, cracked or broken kernels. Skinning and breaking occurs when careless or improper harvesting methods are used. Skinned kernels have loosened husks or husks removed over the germ or with one-third or more of the husk removed. Malting barley which has been harvested and threshed properly contains few skinned or broken kernels and often has short pieces of beard or awn still attached to the kernel. High yields of good quality malting barley cannot be produced unless it is:

  • cut or straight combined at the right stage of maturity
  • swathed correctly
  • threshed correctly
  • handled carefully

Swathing malting barley
Barley for malt must be uniformly and fully ripe when it is harvested. It may be swathed without loss of yield or malting quality as soon as the crop has turned from green to light brown or buff color and the kernels contain from 30 to 35 per cent moisture. Kernel moisture should be determined on samples of grain representative of the whole field, using a reliable moisture meter. Judging kernel moisture content on the basis of growth stages such as soft, mid or firm dough is not precise enough for producing high quality malting barley.

Do not use glyphosate as a pre-harvest treatment on any grain that will be used for seed or malting purposes. Glyphosate does lead to uniform crop dry-down but it will also adversely affect the germination ability of the crop. Malt barley should never have glyphosate applied to it before harvest as this will interfere with its ability to form malt and maltsters will refuse it.

Malting barley should be swathed at a height of 15 to 20 cm to lay a swath that is light enough to dry quickly but heavy enough and overlapped well enough to feed properly and continuously into the combine. It is important to keep the swath off the ground to avoid discoloring the heads.

Straight combining malting barley
Straight combining malting barley is becoming more popular as a management method to obtain higher quality. A standing barley crop tends to resist weathering injury better than a crop lying in a swath, however shattering losses may be greater. Many producers are finding that a good harvesting technique for malting barley is to straight combine at 16 to 17 per cent and then aerate the grain down to 13.5 per cent.

Combining swathed malting barley
Malting barley swaths may be combined as soon as the kernel moisture content has been reduced to 13.5 per cent or lower. Under dry, warm, breezy weather conditions, four to six days are usually required for such drying to occur. If swaths are allowed to dry excessively, there is more danger of peeling and cracking kernels in the combine. Malting barley seems to thresh best in early morning and late evening when kernels are dry but chaff and straw are slightly tough from dew.

To produce high quality malting barley, the combine operator must constantly check and properly adjust the machine to the varying conditions of the swath and weather throughout the day.

High cylinder speed is the major cause of excessive skinned and broken kernels. It is impossible to recommend any one cylinder speed for threshing malting barley. For a 56 cm diameter cylinder, the speeds for threshing six-row barley under fairly good harvest conditions will be about 850-875 rpm, but this must be reduced as the crop becomes drier as the day warms. Since two- row varieties of barley usually thresh more easily, cylinder speeds considerably slower than those cited should be used. Slower cylinder speeds must be balanced against the lowering of the combine's capacity. Cylinder rasp bars should be in good shape. Badly worn rasp bars have to be set too close to the concaves and will cause skinning. Rasp bars with sharp edges or burrs caused by stones will increase damage to kernels.

The space between concaves and the cylinder should be as close as possible, without causing overthreshing. Overthreshing results in too much straw break-up and overloading of the sieves. Close concaves will help separate grain from straw at the concaves. However, too close concave settings will skin kernels. Remember, maltsters do not mind seeing a short piece of awn left on each kernel.

Sieves should be adjusted to provide for the return of the smallest quantity of tailings, A heavy tailings return usually results in a high percent of skinned and broken kernels as they go through the cylinder the second time. Set the sieves well open and almost level or slightly elevated at the rear. Use plenty of wind on the front of the sieve. More barley is lost as a result of too little, rather than too much wind. Wind and sieve adjustments must be checked and adjusted as conditions change throughout the day. Adjust the forward speed of the combine to keep it operating at capacity load.

Operators of rotary-cylinder combines should consult their manuals for instructions on threshing malting barley. The effect of performance adjustments on rotary and conventional combines are very similar.

Remember! Careless swathing, threshing and handling can make feed barley out of otherwise good quality malting barley!

A survey of barley producers indicated they did not swath as early as they could with respect to kernel moisture. Malt barley can be swathed at 30 percent and moisture and they waited until the seed moisture was 20-25 percent.

Considering that a barley crop dries at a rate of about 2 per cent moisture a day under normal dry weathering, this means that they could have swathed 3 - 5 days earlier.

Possible reasons for the delay in swathing are:
1.) Waiting for immature second growth seeds to ripen.
2. ) Because the survey mainly involved the Black soil zone where the fall is quite often characterized by cool, wet weather, some farmers want their crop in the swath for a minimum period of time. After a rain, standing mature barley will dry faster than in a swath, with less danger of sprouting. The more mature a crop is before it is swathed, the less dry-down time is needed in the swath.
3.) The farmers did not know or could not recognize the recommended time to swath.
4.) Time, machinery, weather restraints.
5.) Do not believe per cent kernel moisture is the right time to swath (30% seed and malt).

Harvesting Lodged Barley

Lodged barley must be swathed at or near maturity, and windrowed to allow the green plants to dry before being threshed. Swathers should be equipped with pick-up reels or extended cutter-bar guards to lift the grain before it is cut. Swathers equipped with ordinary reels and cutter bars tend to cut the lodged grain stems and allow the heads to fall to the ground. Severely lodged green barley usually produces low yields of poor quality grain which contains a large number of shrunken kernels.

It may be advantageous to cut severely lodged green barley for silage or dry fodder provided that such fodder can be used or marketed profitably.

Barley that is severely lodged near, or at maturity, may be used for high moisture grain or dry grain. It matures and ripens later than non-lodged grain because the soil dries more slowly under the blanket-like covering of lodged grain. Air movement is restricted under such crops. Because lodged barley usually remains damp for prolonged periods, kernels may bleach or discolour enough to affect market grade and acceptability for malting.

Lodged barley may be straight combined for high moisture grain and handled as outlined earlier in this publication. The combine should be equipped with a pickup reel and extended cutter bar guards to assist in picking the grain from the ground. Because abnormally large amounts of straw are usually harvested from lodged grain, it may be necessary to reduce the width of cut to accommodate the threshing capacity of the combine or its straw spreading ability.

Lodged mature barley may be swathed as soon as kernel moisture content is reduced to the appropriate level. It may be advisable to cut against the direction in which a majority of the crop is leaned or lodged, unless fields are very small. It may even be necessary to swath in one direction only, to avoid heavy losses of heads that lie near the ground. Acceptably sized uniform windrows can be made by altering the width of cut, depending on the severity and direction of the lodging.

The swaths are combined as soon as kernel moisture content reaches the level appropriate for the intended use of the grain. Swathing and harvesting of lodged barley usually takes more time than similar operations in upright crops.

Storage of Barley

Well-constructed granaries and bins are essential for proper long-term storage of barley. The best granaries are weatherproof, well ventilated, and of single-wall construction, Several small granaries are usually better than a few large ones because small lots of barley cool faster and more evenly than large ones.

Granaries should be built on well-drained sites to avoid danger of flooding and better accessibility.

Steel granaries usually require less maintenance, are more rodent proof, and provide fewer places for insects to live and multiply, than wooden bins.

Well constructed wooden granaries are also satisfactory for storing barley provided they are waterproof.

Barley may be stored temporarily in open bins constructed of plywood, paper or plastic-lined snow fence, or of bales of hay. Such bins must be placed on high dry ground to minimize grain spoilage and losses from ground moisture. Cone the grain as high as possible in the centre of open bins to shed rain and snow. Fill the bins to the brim to avoid free board between the grain and upper lip of the bin. Free-board space holds snow. Use a dark polyethylene sheet to cover dry grain but leave tough or damp grain uncovered to dry by exposure to wind and sunshine.

In emergencies, barley may be stored for short periods in conical piles on the ground. Cone the grain as high as possible in the centre of the pile without disturbing the natural slope of the sides and protect it from all disturbances.

Barley must not be stored in dirty granaries. Thoroughly clean the walls and floors of each bin. Remove old grain and dirt from all corners, cracks and crevices by sweeping and vacuuming. When previously stored grain was infested with insects, spray walls and floors of the now empty granary with an approved insecticide about five days before storing new grain.

Fill the granary only to the top plate to provide crawl spaces for inspection, and for ventilation. Never store newly harvested grain on top of old barley that may be infested with insects or contain spoiled grain.

Insect infestations
Because insect infestations can mount very rapidly, all stored barley should be inspected every two to three weeks for signs of infestation, especially when the weather is warm. Harvesting hot grain (above 20 C) will attract grain insects, even if it tests dry. Aerate to cool hot grain as soon as possible after harvest to reduce the possibility of insect infestations. Heating caused by insect activity may be detected by looking for damp, crusty or lumpy areas in the grain. To check for insects, screen a representative sample of it with a 10-mesh sieve. Use a grain probe to obtain samples from within the pile.

In winter, insect infestations in barley can usually be controlled by cooling the grain. Move it several times with augers so as to expose the grain to cold temperatures. Drop the temperature of the grain to about 5 degrees Celsius if possible. If cooled to -20 C, and the temperature maintained there, grain insects will be killed in two weeks.

If moving the grain fails to control an insect infestation, fumigation may be necessary. However, fumigation only works when the grain temperature is above 7C, the minimum to activate the fumigant. Instructions for fumigation may be obtained from agriculture extension specialists, agricultural fieldmen, and most registered pesticide applicators. Producer access to a fumigant is restricted and requires a valid farmer pesticide certificate with applicable endorsement for pests of stored grain.

Storage problems
If the barley has been stored in a "tough" (greater than 14.8% moisture) condition, examine it at least every two weeks by pushing your hand into the surface, as deeply as possible, to feel for warmth or crusting. Insert a long metal rod deeply into the grain to test for warmth and crusting at various depths. Feel the rod for warmth as soon as the rod is withdrawn from the grain. Bins equipped with temperature sensors make it easy to check on grain temperature but they must be evenly distributed throughout the grain and it is still possible to miss hot spots.

Barley that contains more than 14.5 per cent moisture is generally considered to be too damp to safely store. The length of time that damp barley can be stored safely, before drying, depends on the grain temperature and its moisture content. Commercial temperature probes inserted into the grain will provide a more accurate indication of temperature.

If the barley heats and spoils when placed in storage, it will have little market value even as feed. Damp or tough barley should therefore be dried if it is to be stored more than a few days.

Barley that is placed in storage, at or near the maximum safe moisture content, may develop localized high moisture zones because of moisture migration. This is caused by changes in outside air temperatures which set up convection air currents in the storage bin. Moisture migration is most severe in barley stored in large bins when the grain is very warm. Such grain tends to spoil near the top centre of the bin in winter and near the bottom centre in summer. To avoid this difficulty, such barley should be dried or aerated.

For more information on safe storage of grain follow this link$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/crop1204


Other Documents in the Series

  Barley Production in Alberta
Barley Production in Alberta: Selecting Varieties
Barley Production in Alberta: Seeding
Barley Production in Alberta: Fertilizing
Barley Production in Alberta: Plant Development
Barley Production in Alberta: Crop Damage
Barley Production in Alberta: Pests
Barley Production in Alberta: Harvesting - Current Document
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Harry Brook.
This document is maintained by Brenda McLellan.
This information published to the web on August 20, 2002.
Last Reviewed/Revised on April 9, 2018.