Wash. firm takes over WestBred barley breeding
An Eastern Washington company believes barley will revolutionize American agriculture.
“We believe barley is a crop to invest in and food barley in particular deserves a long look,” said Bryce McKay, commercial manager for Highland Specialty Grains, based in Moses Lake, Wash.
In November 2013, the company — formed by McKay, his father Dan McKay and brother Mike McKay and Don Sloan — took over the barley breeding program previously run by WestBred, owned by Monsanto. McKay declined to give the cost of the purchase.
Many of the leaders are part of McKay Seed in Moses Lake, but Bryce McKay said McKay Seed is not participating in the breeding program. McKay Seed is one of about 25 associates of Highland Specialty Grains.
Bryce McKay pointed to signs of growth in the various barley marketing classes. Feed barley acreage is rising and a valuable forage crop. Forage barley is booming, particularly in California, Idaho, Arizona and Montana, he said.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before the extremely valuable health properties of food barley lands it a spot in a major product, which would drive up demand tremendously,” he said.
In the 1980s, McKay said, it was common to see more than a million acres planted in Washington. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Washington farmers planted 195,000 acres in 2013, up from 185,000 acres in 2012, 140,000 acres in 2011 and 90,000 acres in 2010.
McKay also points to the crop’s healthfulness, with “tons of fiber and antioxidants.”
“For years, folks have known that barley is an incredible resource for food but the marketing efforts haven’t been successful to back that up and put barley in a widely available commercial food product,” he said.
Highland Specialty Grains will focus on yield. McKay notes that yield can be influenced by factors that don’t automatically seem to translate to yield potential at first, such as straw strength - lodged barley yields less than barley standing up. Resistance or tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, such as disease, pests and heat, are also important, he added.
The company’s core strength is its focus only on barley, Bryce McKay said.
“That means that 100 percent of our resources are going towards making barley a more viable option for farmers not only in the Pacific Northwest but in the western United States,” he said. “As far as I know, we’re the only group doing that, and I think it’s going to translate into better varieties, which means more viability for barley in a spring rotation.”
The company is releasing RWA-1758, a variety of barley resistant to Russian wheat aphid and other types of aphids and pests, with limited quantities of certified seed available in spring of 2015. McKay said the variety will be “an amazing fit to combat aphid pressure” in certain areas in the region.
The company will conduct spring variety trials for lines currently in development and crosses for new varieties.
Barley breeder Mike McKay will make hundreds of crosses this spring, planting more than 3,500 plots in three to five locations, Bryce McKay said.