All About Barley: An Underdog to be Reckoned With

Beer, Bread, Soup and a Unit of Measurement

Alike wheat and rice, barley started out as a grass that has nourished humans for over 7000 years. Some of the earliest findings to the cultivation of this barley grass take us back to ancient Egyptian farmers who mastered this crop turning it into both bread and beer (a complete meal one may argue). The ancient Egyptians were, however, not the only people that took a liking to this nutty flavoured crop. Barley played an important role in cultures across the globe as an iconic ingredient in traditional Hebrew, Greek and Roman food. Even in northern Europe, the dependence on barley cannot go unnoticed. 

What do you get when you line up three grains of barley? 

This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke to our modern ears but in the 14th century England this was serious business. Alike many of the historic units of measurement, they were based on actual things and barely was a prime candidate. In 1324 King Edward II of England set a new standard for the length of one inch, which is the exact distance that 3 grains of barley span when lined up lengthwise. If this seems like an uncertain measurement that is all but an exact unit, you are not alone. The English businessmen at the time were of a similar opinion and demanded the king be more clear. This lead to the king issuing an official decree that defines the exact units which are used in England to this day. The decree stated that 3 corns of barley make one inch, twelve inches make one foot and 3 feet make up one yard. 


There are two main varieties of barley which are distinguished by the number of rows the plant has. The six-row barley has six grains per row and contains more protein which makes it especially suitable for producing animal feed. According to estimations by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ca 70% of barley produced ends its journey as animal feed. The two-row barley only contains three grains per row and contains higher levels of sugar making it ideal for malt production used in alcoholic beverages. Malting barley gives beer, whiskey and even barley wine. When barley is used in baking such as making bread, a smaller less poofed loaf can generally be expected. Compared to wheat barley contains less gluten making it more compact and tough. Barley also has many other use cases. During the first and second world war, roasted barley was used as a substitute for coffee. Roasted barley coffee is still a popular caffeine-free alternative to traditional coffee beans today. 

Cultivation and Harvest

Much like other grains, barley is an annual crop. However, unlike the other cereals, it is especially hardy. Barley is incredibly adaptable to its environment and temperatures. For example, though the ideal temperature for barley germination ranges between 12°–25°C, any range between 4°–37°C is good enough for the crop. Barleys growing period is equally impressive. Though it ideally needs 90 days, it is able to both grow and ripen in much less time than any other cereal. During its growth, the crop also shows exceptional resistance to heat. Farmers in regions around North Africa tend to battle with near-desert conditions. However, when sowing barley in the autumn time even these conditions are no match for barley. As soon as it has ripened and the crops moisture content is below 12% it is ready for harvesting. The cultivation process of barley including sowing and harvesting is the same as that of other cereal crops. 

Disease Management 

Barley may be as close to a super crop as cereals may come, but even it has its weaknesses. A portion of the diseases that barley plants are prone to develop are shared with wheat such as brown rust, yellow rust and mildew. Ramularia is a fungal infection unique to barley and is mainly caused by infected seeds. Symptoms of this disease are characterised by small brown spots across the leave that cause it to die. What can be done about it?

With precision farming tools barley growers can receive much of the same help as wheat farmers get. Using various vegetational indices to measure the crops wellbeing and early detecting threats such as pests and diseases makes a significant difference. Similarly, correctly addressing the varying need for nutrition in a barley field too is crucial. Barley may be the most resilient cereal, but all plants need water. Using remote sensing to optimize the irrigation of barley is especially important for farmers in hotter climates. 

Barley is an impressive crop that can withstand almost anything for being a cereal. With optimized nutrition, irrigation and pest management it truly has the potential to become one of the most important crops.


Quiz Answers


1. B-vitamin

3. Coffee


2. Egypt

4. Animal feed

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