The Vavilov winter barley crosses are showing a lot of promise in the early stages of development. This picture shows a variety starting to mature in early July at the MSU Post Farm in Bozeman, Mont.

Grain growers across Montana and the Northern Plains are consistently struggling for moisture. This particular region of the United States is tough, especially on fall-planted crops, because those varieties have to be able to withstand harsh winters, hot and dry summers and short growing seasons. With these challenges in mind, plant breeders at Montana State University (MSU) are always researching and experimenting with cross-breeds in the hopes of developing a crop variety that will prove profitable for the grower despite climate limitations.

Currently at MSU, work is being done to develop a winter barley variety. The hope is that once fully developed, winter barley will just be one more tool growers across the area can use to capitalize on early-season moisture and obtain higher yields.

“In Montana, already existing winter barley varieties have never been cold-tolerant enough, so we have never been able to grow it,” explained Dr. Jamie Sherman, director of MSU’s barley breeding program.

Winter barley has several ecological advantages, Sherman explained. Because it is planted in the fall, winter barley has the potential to help spread out the work load of farmers, and in addition to taking advantage of early spring precipitation, winter barley finishes earlier than traditional, spring-planted barley varieties.

“One of the problems we have with malt barley is, it often hits heat during grain fill and that damages the malt quality. I became interested in winter barley because it finishes early, so it could miss those high temperatures in late July and August,” Sherman added.

The advantages are clearly there, but figuring out how to develop a variety that could tolerate Montana’s extreme winters has been the challenge. Sherman and MSU’s barley breeding program got a huge push when colleagues from the University of Minnesota shared some seed material that had come from the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in Russia.

Nikolai Vavilov was a prominent Russian plant breeder who was active prior to World War II. He was in many ways a humanitarian who used his passion for plant breeding to develop sustainable crop varieties in an effort to combat famine.

Vavilov traveled the world and collected material from all corners of the globe, making the world’s largest seed collection at the time. Unfortunately, Vavilov lost favor with Stalin and ended up in prison where he ultimately starved to death in 1943.

During the 28-month siege of Leningrad, Vavilov’s colleagues hid and protected his seed collection, refusing to eat any of the collection’s contents even though they themselves were desperately short of food. Because of their heroic efforts, Vavilov’s collection survived not only the siege, but World War II entirely, and his collection now serves as great foundation for plant breeders like Sherman.

Bedded within Vavilov’s collection was some winter barley seeds from varieties much more cold-tolerant than those currently available. Winter barley from the Vavilov collection may be more cold-tolerant, but otherwise, it’s not very well adapted, so upon receiving the material, Sherman went to work crossing the cold-tolerant barley with varieties already better suited for Montana’s growing conditions.

“We have been growing these crosses for about three years both in Bozeman and Moccasin in collaboration with Jed Eberly at the Central Montana Ag Research Center,” Sherman stated.

While Bozeman may get more snow, winters around Moccasin are often harsher, so growing the varieties in both location is a good test of their winter hardiness. So far, the crosses are indeed proving to be more cold-tolerant. Initial trials have also shown these particular winter barley lines do better being planted into no-till soils.

It is quite the process to develop an entirely new variety of barley and MSU’s winter barley development is really just in its early stages. Right now, Sherman and her collaborators are trying to get a feel for the extent of these barley lines. How cold can they tolerate? Are there parts of Montana/certain winter climates they would be better suited for? Sherman estimates if all goes as planned they are 4-5 years away from the finished product.

“Our first goal is to develop a forage line just because the quality isn’t such a big issue, but we are going to keep working on the malt quality, as well,” Sherman said.

It is no doubt there is still work that needs to be done before a winter barley line could be released. Nevertheless, MSU’s barley breeding program, with support from the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee and the Brewers Association, has a wonderful start on the project.