By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Idaho Barley Commissioner Dwight Little predicts Idaho will face stiff competition from North Dakota at harvest in its bid to remain the nation's top barley state, based on grower planting intentions the USDA released March 30.

Idaho growers intend to plant 590,000 acres of barley, up 13 percent from last year. North Dakota growers should plant 980,000 acres, compared with 400,000 acres planted last year, when they also dealt with bad weather. Montana growers intend to plant 810,000 acres, compared with 700,000 acres last year.

Total U.S. barley acreage is estimated at 3.33 million, up 30 percent from last year's record low. Despite the large planting increase, the USDA indicated this year's crop, if realized, would still be the third smallest on record.

Idaho, which became the top barley state last year, irrigates much of its barley acres and has low disease pressure due to its desert environment, resulting in better yields than other barley states.

"There's a good chance we'll stay No. 1, but with North Dakota more than doubling their acreage ... they may take the No. 1 spot and we may shift to second," said Little, who farms in the Newdale-Teton area.

In the long run, Little believes competing crops such as corn and soybeans will cut into barley acreage in North Dakota, which has historically been the top barley state.

In California growers plan to grow 90,000 barley acres, down 10,000 acres from last year. Oregon growers plan to grow 40,000 acres, up from 38,000 acres. Washington should have 140,000 acres, up from 125,000 acres.

Tom Zwainz, chairman of the Washington Grain Commission, planted about 40 percent of the spring crop at his Reardan farm in feed barley. Weather in his region had been dry, and barley is efficient with water. Now that recent storms have left fields in his area too wet to plant, he anticipates other growers may look to barley as a short-season crop.

"In our area, the seed dealers are talking about they're out of (barley) seed. They may be getting more out of Canada," Zwainz said, adding recent high corn prices are also bullish for feed barley.

Prompted by improved insurance coverage, better barley prices and rising input costs, Little will shift much of his wheat to irrigated malt barley this season. He believes many growers like barley because it requires fewer inputs.

Breweries and malting companies have felt the pinch of short barley supply lately and have offered top dollar to contract more acreage, Little said. As of March 1, barley stocks were down 32 percent from a year ago, according to USDA.

"Those big breweries know their pipeline is short right now, and they can't afford a short crop again," Little said. "I suspect they'll probably went out and contracted above their needs just to ensure supply is going to be there."

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