IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Bryon Reed always applied nitrogen sparingly to his barley to avoid elevating malt protein levels, until he learned through a report compiled by Anheuser-Busch that his neighbors were applying more without negative consequences.
Reed was among 30 Anheuser-Busch growers in Idaho who participated in the brewing company’s SmartBarley pilot program last season. Anheuser-Busch asked growers for detailed, field-specific information about their agronomic practices and production from the prior year. Growers were later emailed a link to an anonymous report showing results of different practices by region.
Anheuser-Busch officials plan to scale up the program this season and will take face-to-face surveys of 180 Idaho growers from this month through December to produce a new SmartBarley report.
Based on SmartBarley data, Reed increased his nitrogen rates by 10 percent on certain fields.
“It’s been extremely useful,” Reed said of the data. “You always wonder how you compare.”
The program is part of a broader push by Anheuser-Busch to improve the sustainability of its own operations and the grain it sources.
“It’s what the industry wants. All of the companies want to show we’re only putting on what we need,” Reed said.
Tim Pella, program manager of Idaho barley operations for Anheuser-Busch, said growers in North Dakota, Montana and Canada are also participating in SmartBarley, which the company hopes to conduct annually. Pella said the information is intended to help growers make decisions, not to mandate any sustainability milestones.
“If they learn that the neighbor is doing something different or the county is getting a higher yield, it certainly is worth looking at what that person is doing,” Pella said.
Also to promote sustainability, Pella said Anheuser-Busch is establishing new Idaho test plots to develop drought-resistant barley cultivars, and has set a goal of reducing the time it takes to release new varieties from about 14 years to as short as five years.
Angie Slaughter, senior manager in raw materials and energy procurement with Anheuser-Busch, said in an internal corporate memo the company has reduced water use by 32 percent at its U.S. breweries over the last five years.
Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch funded six new AgriMet weather stations, which provide growers localized weather data, in key barley growing areas in Eastern Idaho. Growers including Reed are now entering that AgriMet data into software developed by Washington State University to analyze water use and evapotranspiration in order to make better irrigation decisions.
The national agricultural sustainability organization Field to Market, which includes more tun 50 member organizations such as Walmart and McDonalds, also has plans to emphasize sustainability in barley production.
Field to Market President Rod Snyder said his organization has proposed to add barley metrics and benchmarks to its FieldPrint Calculator, which helps growers compare their agronomic data with others in their area. Barley groups are now reviewing the proposed metrics.