By JOHN O'CONNELL
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho -- Klaren Koompin dabbled in winter barley about 30 years ago but abandoned it after concluding winter wheat was more profitable.
Now, the American Falls grower believes the growth of Idaho's dairy industry and strong barley prices justify the risk of renewing his trials with a crop that can be sensitive to his growing area's chilly climate.
He's planted 250 acres of the winter barley feed varieties Schuyler and Sunstar Pride, hoping they'll weather the eastern Idaho winter and use considerably less water than winter wheat.
Koompin recalled his winter barley grew well three decades ago.
"We're just kind of looking at the feed market right now, how much less water does it take, just all sorts of questions need to be answered here over the next five or six years," Koompin said. "We're looking at going after the early dairy market. It should be the earliest feed available."
Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, sees acres of winter barley expanding eastward in Idaho as better winter-hardy varieties are developed.
"Growers, especially some in the dryland areas, are looking for that golden opportunity," Jones said. "If you're in a drought situation, winter barley would be preferable to the spring if you can make it work."
Further west in Idaho, Buhl grower Ron Elkin has had good luck with the winter malting barley variety Charles. He's averaged between 145 and 160 bushels per acre under irrigation but thinks he can improve his yields.
"I think I'm on the eastern edge of where it's been performing real well. I've talked with a few guys in the Burley area who haven't had real good luck with it," Elkin said.
Elkin can shut off irrigation to winter barley three to four weeks earlier than spring barley, allowing him to shift water to other crops.
"We'll get a little bit of winter kill," Elkin said. "It seems like a pretty marginal stand can still get you a pretty good crop."
His winter barley uses less fertilizer and water than winter wheat, with malt contracts lately generating as much or more revenue.
Kelly Olson, administrator of the Idaho Barley Commission, said growers in the Idaho Falls area who have tried Charles have reported poor winter survival. Planting in Idaho of the 4-year-old variety has declined from 11,400 acres in 2010 to 8,500 acres in 2012.
Another variety, Endeavor, is slightly more winter hardy than Charles but hasn't been commercially planted yet, Olson said. Charles will account for all of Idaho's 2013 winter malt barley crop.
In healthy stands, Olson said winter barley yields run 20-25 percent higher than spring barley. Charles compensates for some winter kill by putting out a high number of tillers -- shoots that grow from parent stems and have their own seed heads.
Olson said the commission is aggressively funding research to develop better winter barley varieties, including efforts to find elite European malt varieties that adapt well to Idaho.