Barley, a rabi (winter season) coarse cereal that had lost out to wheat in the post-green revolution period in terms of productivity and consumer preference, is back. The revival of farmers' interest in this versatile cereal has been triggered by increased demand from the malting, brewing, confectionery and pharmaceutical industries, coupled with the evolution of its high-yielding varieties suitable for industrial uses. Besides, it underwent an image makeover to regain consumer appeal as a health food, thanks to its high content of cholesterol-lowering fibres, both soluble and insoluble, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Barley is now increasingly being used as an ingredient in the multigrain health foods, including multigrain atta (flour) and bread, baby foods, cocoa-malt drinks and several other products.
Though the rehabilitation of barley began in the mid-1990s, it got a real boost in the mid-2000s with the availability of improved varieties fit for growing under different agro-climatic conditions in the vast Indo-Gangetic plain and northern hills. These varieties, moreover, have been evolved with different objectives in view, such as malting and brewing, dual use for food and animal feed, and for growing in rainfed or irrigated lands. The breeding work has been coordinated by the Karnal-based Directorate of Wheat Research (DWR).
Interestingly, one of the highly popular barley varieties with excellent malting traits is bred under a public-private partnership between DWR and Bangalore-based United Breweries at a research centre in Patiala, Punjab. This variety, named DWRUB 52, was developed by crossing two-row and six-row barleys, which are so called according to the number of seed-bearing rows along the mid-rib (rachis) in grain-bearing ears of the plants. Two-row barleys generally have lower protein content and more fermentable sugar than six-row barleys and are, therefore, preferred for malting and brewing. The traditional six-row types, on the other hand, normally have higher husk and less carbohydrates, resulting in poor malting quality.
The DWRUB 52 strain, released in 2006, is essentially a two-row barley having round seeds (as distinct from the common oblong seeds) and is capable of resisting the onslaught of dreaded plant diseases like leaf blight and rusts. It has a high-yield potential of around five tonnes a hectare - comparable with that of some popular varieties of wheat and is, therefore, deemed fit to replace wheat in the country's main bread bowl of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan if remunerative prices are ensured. In fact, this variety is already being promoted by the breweries through contract farming in these states to secure their raw material supplies. The DWRB 73 is another good high-yielding variety of barley released for commercial cultivation in 2010 that is immune to common plant diseases and can thrive well in irrigated fields of the northwestern plains.
Traditionally, barley was grown in semi-arid regions in the northern plains and hills, primarily to serve as both feed and food. DWR scientists believe that even today, dual-utility barley has tremendous scope for cultivation not only in the north but also in central India. For twin-use, the upper green portion of the crop is cut after 55 days of sowing to be used as animal fodder, and the crop is allowed to re-grow to bear grains that can either be fed to livestock or consumed as food. Some of the recently developed dual-use barley strains can yield about 20 to 25 tonnes of green fodder apart from three to 3.5 tonnes, or even more in some cases, of grains. Recent experimentation has shown that increasing the number of plants per hectares by sowing up to 25 per cent more seeds can help reap higher quantities of fodder without sacrificing the grain yield.
Now that the land for farming is becoming a limiting factor, and the prices of green fodder have skyrocketed because of shortage, barley can come in handy to overcome these constraints. Besides, it can help diversify a cropping pattern that, in the north, is highly wheat-centric. Notably, barley has been found amenable even to grow without much tillage to save on the labour costs. The promotion of this crop, therefore, can be beneficial for farmers, barley-based industries and health-conscious consumers.