The best barley no longer is reserved for beer. Fido the dog or Fluffy the cat also get to taste the good stuff — in the form of pet food.
From 20- to 30% of the barley grown in North Dakota and Minnesota is sold to pet food processors or pet food companies, said Steve Edwardson, North Dakota Barley Council executive administrator.
The amount of barley used in pet food began growing about seven years ago, said Kevin Pray, MGI Grain Processing LLC senior vice president sales and business development, business unit leader. MGI Grain Processing LLC removes the barley hulls and polishes the seed, a process called pearling.
The protein content of barley — about 13% — and its reputation as a carbohydrate that doesn’t make pets as jittery as some other carbohydrates do has resulted in it being preferred as an ingredient over corn or rice, said Pray. Meanwhile, barley has good fiber content.
“Barley has a health halo,” Pray said.
Demand for pet food, in general, has exploded during the past few years as people buy and rescue companion animals, which they view as part of the family, he said.
“People view their pets differently than they did five years ago,” Pray said.
That’s been good news for the barley industry. Barley acreage in North Dakota steadily has dropped during the past few decades as corn and soybean acres have grown. During the past 15 years, the decline in barley acres has increased sharply. In 2003, for example, the state’s farmers planted 2 million acres of barley, which produced a crop of 118.8 million bushels.
In 2021, North Dakota farmers planted less than half as many — 580,000 acres — and harvested just 430,000 as drought reduced yields, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Production last year was 21.9 million bushels, nearly 90% less than the record of 184 million bushels set in 1985, the statistics service said.
Minnesota barley production has followed a similar trend to North Dakota. The state’s production peaked at 70 million bushels in 1985. Last year’s production, which totaled 1.7 million bushels, was reduced by a combination of acreage decline and drought, NASS said.
The largest concentration of North Dakota’s barley acres is in the northeast and north-central part of the state. Most of Minnesota’s barley is grown in the northwest.
“Barley, anymore, has become a speculative crop. You just don’t see a lot of non- speculative (acres) going into the ground,” Edwardson said. ”By and large, it’s going to be contracted; either it’s malting or brewing or pet food.”
The North Dakota Barley Council, which continuously is looking for new avenues for farmers to sell their crop, began promoting barley to the pet food industry several years ago, said Greg Kessel, North Dakota Barley Council chair and owner of Arrow K Farms in Belfield, North Dakota.
“It’s kind of a breath of fresh air that we found another market, and we aren’t just held hostage to the malt people,” Kessel said.
Several North Dakota and Minnesota processors and pet food companies have contracts with North Dakota and Minnesota barley farmers. Processors include Fargo, North Dakota-based Anchor Ingredient, which has plants in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and Hillsboro, North Dakota; Engstrom Bean in Leeds, North Dakota, and Valley Grain Milling, which has barley milling plants in the North Dakota towns of Beaulah and Casselton.
KLN Family Brands, in Perham, Minnesota, which makes dog food, including Tuffy’s, also contracts directly with barley farmers.
MGI Grain Processing LLC in East Grand Forks, which is owned by RiceBran Technologies, buys barley from North Dakota, Minnesota and Canadian farmers and pearls it, then sells it to pet food processors or distributors who sell it to pet food companies, Pray said.
Pet food companies are offering contracts running from $6.75 to $8 per bushel, Edwardson said.
Barley grown for pet food, like for malting, must meet certain specifications. For example, the barley must be free of toxins and have a certain protein percentage.
At MGI Grain Processing LLC, 13% protein is preferred, Pray said.
Wade Harpestad, a Hampton, North Dakota farmer, contracted some of his 2022 barley with a pet food processor this spring. Though barley fell out of favor with some farmers, Harpestad has continued to grow it on his farm and typically contracts his production with a malting company.
“Year in and year out, it pays the bills. It works well with my rotation,” he said.
Harpestad initially began selling barley to a pet food processing company a year ago on the open market after a representative called him and asked if he had any extra barley that he hadn’t sold for malt, Harpestad said.
He told the company he did.
Harpestad annually grows between 900 and 1,300 acres of barley, and always plants more than he contracts with maltsters so he has a cushion in case yields are lower than average.
Harpestad sold the company the extra bushels last year and again this past winter
“The stuff that I sold to them this winter, I got paid more than any malting contract,” Harpestad said.
Pet food processors and companies, like buyers of other commodities, were paying premium prices for barley, which was in short supply because of drought conditions.
This year’s contract with the pet food processor is slightly lower than his malting contract but still competitive, Harpestad said.
This year, after a couple of years of selling barley to a pet food company on the open market Jim Broten, a longtime Dazey, North Dakota, barley farmer also contracted with a pet food company for the first time.
Broten has had a hand in promoting barley to the pet food industry and is pleased that it has resulted in increased demand.
“We knew that the pet food industry was growing by leaps and bounds. When I was a kid, pets usually got the scraps from the table. Now a big percentage of pets get that (commercial pet food),” he said. “They’re part of the family.
“It’s turning out to be a very good market for us,” he said.
The pet food industry in Minnesota, which includes KLN Family Brands, also is a great outlet for barley in Minnesota, said Marv Zutz, Minnesota Barley executive director.
“We’re fortunate to have one of the largest pet food companies down in Perham,” Zutz said. “In Minnesota, like in North Dakota, we’re seeing an increase in barley acres because of the pet food barley market. Without that pet food market, our acres would shrink considerably.”
“It’s been a welcome surprise and appears to be demonstrating dependable growth,” Edwardson said.
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