New research into grain skinning has variety focus

A NEW research project at SRUC will look at the problem of grain skinning in barley.

It follows a season in which high levels of skinning in crops raised questions about the suitability of spring barley varieties for distilling and how they are assessed.

During the project, scientists from SRUC and the James Hutton Institute will examine hundreds of varieties to look for those which are particularly susceptible or resistant to grain skinning, before looking at the physiological, genetic and environmental factors which could affect the condition.

The three-year project will be funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) and aims to help improve future barley varieties.


Dr Steve Hoad, who leads SRUC’s agronomy, physiology and genetics team, says: “This is a topical issue for the industry. At our cereals workshops in January, many farmers were concerned about grain skinning.

“Often farmers only grow two or three varieties of barley, so if they suffer from grain skinning, it could mean a large amount of their crop is rejected by maltsters who look for very high quality barley for their products. They may be able to sell it for use as animal feed, but the price will be much reduced.

“We have found some new varieties are vulnerable to loose or detached husks. We may be left in the situation where maltsters can no longer source barley from this country, leaving farmers and barley breeders in difficult situations.”

Weather conditions could be a factor, as could genetic make-up of varieties. With extremes of weather in recent years, issues such as grain skinning become more vital to combat. Long harvests seem to exacerbate the problem.

Dr Hoad says: “Although we hope recent bad summers are merely a glitch with the changing world climate, Scotland could find the weather remains unreliable.”

A difference in the growth between grain and husk could also cause the problem.

Dr Hoad says: “One theory is grain skinning occurs because the husk is not firmly attached to the grain. It could be the quality of the natural glue which performs this role in some varieties is poor.”

It is difficult to see how crops could be managed to limit skinning as the problem is one of plant genetics and environment, he says.

“Although growers could look to certain management practices, these are unlikely to be reliable.

“Combine settings can have an influence, but weaker varieties are still more likely to cause problems and must be harvested with care.”

The research will take varieties, weather and location into account when the 200 varieties are screened for genetic variation.

Additional information will be collected from the malting industry.

What is grain skinning and why is it a problem?

  • Grain skinning is a physical defect in barley in which the husk coating the barley grain becomes weak and detaches. It adversely affects both the malting and brewing process
  • Barley is the main cereal crop grown in Scotland, and the most valuable. In 2011 Scottish growers grew 1.8 million tonnes of barley which had a market value of £286 million. In comparison the Scottish oat crop was worth £20 million and the wheat crop £129 million. The Grampian region grows 40 per cent of Scotland’s barley with Tayside growing 19 per cent

Case Study

David Fuller-Shapcott of Sweethope Farm,  farms 240 hectares (600 acres) mixed arable and livestock farm in the heart of the Scottish Borders, close to Kelso.

Mr Fuller-Shapcott says the farm has worked hard to be proactive on preventing grain skinning.

He believes is not as simple as varietal choice, but depends on location and weather patterns in the area.

He says: “It is easy to say, but not to do, but the main focus is timing of harvest. It’s harder to prevent skinning in wet and slow harvests. If the grains are ripe, they are easy to break and vice versa.”

Mr Fuller-Shapcott adds that combine settings are ‘crucial’ when avoiding skinning. “The automatic settings are not necessarily right.” There is a need to be flexible when setting up for barley, he says. “Growers need to be as kind as possible with the combine, opening and slowing the drum a lot reduces thrashing of the grain.

“Rejections are expensive but the quality parameters are clear from maltsters. If you can’t achieve these standards you need to consider growing feed, it’s about knowing the capabilities of yourself and your land.”


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