How To Harvest Barley {A Simple Guide}

There are a few different methods for harvesting barley. You may use modern machinery such as a combined harvester, or for smaller crops, there is the option to harvest by hand in a more traditional way. However you decide to harvest your grain, you’ll still need to ensure it is at the proper ripeness. Let’s take a closer look and learn more about how to harvest barley.

Is Barley Easy to Harvest?

Is Barley Easy to Harvest?

Harvesting barley isn’t a complicated process providing you have the right tools for the job. How you choose to do it will depend on how large a crop you have to harvest.

The most significant problems you’ll need to overcome when harvesting barley are judging perfect ripeness, choosing the best method of harvesting, the weather, and moisture content.

Direct Heading

This is the cheapest method of harvesting barley. 

It is usual to wait until the barley has a moisture content of between 10% and 12%. This allows for it to be taken directly to its destination and be stored without the need for further drying.

As soon as the crop is ripe and has dried off to the right level, you should harvest it. This helps prevent potential losses from bad weather, dropping heads or sprouting.

When direct heading try to:

  • Remove contaminants such as weeds, seeds, and small grain.
  • Set up your harvesting equipment correctly to prevent skinning or cracking of the grain.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by keeping your equipment clean.
  • Keep monitoring the barley as you harvest it and look for any potential problems so you can fix them quickly.

If there have been long periods of high humidity when the grain comes to full ripeness, it may not be dry and will have a moisture content of over 12%.

The options are to wait and hope the humidity drops and the grain can dry before it is damaged by head loss or rain. Or to artificially dry the grain once it has been harvested.

Moisture content of up to 15% will probably make the crop still viable, even if you have to artificially dry it. Above this, you will have difficulty with threshing, and the costs of drying would be too excessive.

If the moisture content is allowed to drop below 10%, the grain will become more brittle and is susceptible to skinning while threshing. This causes a problem during the steeping phase when processing the grain for malt, as it can cause the seed to die.

Swathing or Wind-Rowing

Swathing, or Wind-rowing as it is also called, is an old-fashioned method of drying the grain while also retaining quality. It is advantageous to farmers without drying equipment.

The crop is cut as soon as it is fully mature, but before it’s fully dry, so at a moisture content of between 20% and 30%. 

It is then allowed to dry in swaths (bundles) until the moisture content gets below 12.5%. A special attachment on the header of a combine can then collect and thresh the grain from the straw. Or it can be done by hand.

Advantages to swathing:

  • If you swath the crop, it will be ready for harvest sooner than one left to mature standing in the field. This can help to prevent the crop from being exposed to bad weather.
  • It is a cheap way of drying.
  • There is less loss from lodging, and head drop is also reduced.
  • The maturity of the crop is evened out.
  • Weeds that can contaminate the crop are dried out.
  • Because swathed barley is dryer than standing barley, it can be harvested earlier in the day or later in the evening.

Disadvantages to swathing:

  • Unless you are harvesting by hand using a scythe or sickle, you will need additional attachments for your machinery to swath the barley. 
  • You will also need to do an additional pass, which increases fuel costs, time, and machinery hours.
  • It is about 20% slower than direct heading.
  • If there are prolonged wet periods, drying time will be increased, and quality may also be lost.
  • The crop can become contaminated by insects, soil, rocks, and other materials.

You should swath the grain when moisture content falls below 35%. The grain should be hard, but still quite easily dentable with a thumbnail.

How to Swath Your Barley

  1. The crop is cut, usually at a 45° angle. It is placed in rows held together with interlaced straw and supported by the stubble that remains in the field. 
  1. Swaths shouldn’t be placed in the same location every year. This is to prevent leached nutrients from becoming concentrated in one spot.
  1. Your header size will dictate the width of the cut you make. Various attachments can vary how the swaths are laid.
  1. Adjust the cutting height to allow for the straw to be kept together on the head. This is a minimum of 30cm. It also provides for the remaining stubble to give enough support for each wind-row (about beer can height). 
  1. This length of stubble helps the crop to drain freely and air to circulate quickly should there be rain and the barley become wet.
  1. If the crop is too sparse or short to allow for a good amount and height of stubble, then it should not be swathed.
  1. When picking up your swath, ensure the rotating speed of your reel is a little faster than your traveling speed, but not so fast that it begins to knock the heads from the stems.
  1. Conveyor canvas must be revolving fast enough, so it doesn’t clog. The header should follow the direction of the swath. 
  1. Any heads that are touching the ground may sprout. Picking up heads that are too close to the ground can contaminate the crop with soil.
  1. The cut swath must be harvested within ten days from cutting, sooner if possible. Damage from excessive rain may occur if it lasts for several days or more.
  1. A major contaminant found in swath barley is stubble that has been torn from the ground during the swathing process. It can happen because machinery speeds are too high or because the crop is tough from being damp or cold. 

To learn more about storing barley, read our article.

When to Harvest Barley?

When to Harvest Barley

There are two crops of barley, spring barley and winter barley. Spring barley is planted in the spring and can be harvested in the late summer or early fall. Winter barley is planted during fall then gathered in the mid to late summer.

Knowing exactly when to harvest will depend on several key factors:

  • When the crop was planted
  • The variety of barley 
  • The weather conditions
  • The maturity of the crop

Judging the maturity of your crop can be done by paying close attention to its appearance. First, it begins to lose its green color. This indicates the grain has stopped growing and filling and has already started to dry.

The moisture level at this point will be between 25 and 30 percent. If you don’t have drying facilities, you will need to dry it for longer. If you can’t test how dry it is, see other methods of judging ripeness to harvest below.

How do I Know When Barley is Ready to Harvest?

  1. After the barley has turned from green to golden, the heads/ears/spikes will gradually droop down. This indicates that the moisture content is falling and will go from around 25 to 15 percent. 
  2. When it is entirely mature, the heads will be totally bent over, indicating that the plant has lost all the moisture it can in the field. It should now be around the 12 to 13 percent range.
  3. When the barley is this ripe, there is a risk that the grain will sprout or start to mold, so it is paramount to pay very close attention to prevent this from happening. 

You can also test for maturity by picking and opening random barley heads from around your crop and trying the seeds. 

  • Not Mature – When it is still immature, you can easily dent the seed with your thumbnail, and if you bite on it, it will be squishy.
  • Almost Mature – At this stage, the seed will dent a little when you press your thumbnail into it. If you bite on it, you will be able to cut it in two, but it isn’t as soft and squashy as an immature seed. This is the correct ripeness for swathing your crop.
  • Mature – When the seed is fully mature, it will be tough to dent it with your thumbnail. When biting it, it will crack. This is the correct ripeness for direct heading a standing crop.

By combining both of the described methods to check for maturity, you should be able to gauge it quite well. 

What Do You Use to Harvest Barley?

Large barley crops are harvested using a combine harvester. For small crops, you may prefer to use a manual method such as a scythe or even a sickle.

Harvesting machines have been around since 1834 when the first “Mechanical Reaper” was patented by Cyrus McCormick and “Combine Harvester” by Hiram Moore. 

These machines were drawn by teams of mules or horses, and a bull wheel gave them their power. 

Tractor-driven combines used a shaker for grain separation, and a straw-walker would remove the straw. They were developed to have independent engines to power the grain separation parts and gradually evolved into the combines we see today.

Modern combines can have various interchangeable collection systems that are used for different types of crops.

Due to the high cost of buying a combine, many small farmers share the burden and form a harvesting conglomerate. They are also available to hire, or you can get a contractor to do the job for you. 

How to Harvest Barley by Hand?

Barley can be harvested by hand. You simply pick the ripe heads off the stalks. A better method if you have a sizable patch is to use a scythe or a sickle. If you need to gather more than an acre, you’ll probably need to get some help, but this can be quite a fun job and is great for building a sense of achievement and community. 

Once you’ve cut the barley, you can either process it by hand or use a threshing machine to separate the barley grains from the straw.

In this video, you will see how to harvest your barley by cutting with a scythe and then using an old-style threshing machine running from a tractor:

How Do You Process Barley?

The first job is to separate the barley grain from the straw. Once this is done, there are several options open to you, depending on what you want to use the barley for.

Processing for Malt

If you’ve grown barley to use as malt, then you’ll be looking to ensure it has a germination percentage above 98%. Anything lower than this is not suitable for maltsters.

To ensure this is possible, you need to handle the barley correctly and harvest it carefully.

The things that most affect the quality are over threshing, which skins the grain, harvesting when it is still too wet, or storing when moisture levels are still too high.

When the barley is stored wet, it generates heat. If the temperature gets over 100°F, then the viability of the seed is reduced, and the barley won’t germinate so well. 

If you want to malt the barley yourself for making beer, then there are three processes to follow:

  1. Soak the barley, which is also called steeping. This helps to wake the grain and get it ready for germination.
  1. Allow the grain to germinate.
  1. Heat the germinated grain to the color required – the darker the color, the stronger the flavor. 

You can learn more in this article on How To Make Barley Wine.

Processing for Animal Feed

If you’ve grown barley as an animal feed crop, you’re better to roll it, crush it or hammer it to break the seed’s tough outer shell and expose the inner parts. This is because the husk is very fibrous and difficult for the animal’s digestive tract to break down. 

If you feed the grain unprocessed, a large amount will simply pass straight through your livestock without providing them with any nourishment at all. Essentially it will be completely wasted.

How fine or coarse you make your processing will depend on the animal you’ll be feeding and the equipment you have. Having too fine a grind will produce feed that is floury and dusty, which could cause health problems down the line. 

Younger livestock tend to prefer a finer grind, while older animals are better on a medium to a coarse mix.

Chickens: 

  • Newborn chicks to three weeks – use a 1/8-inch screen on with a very fine grind. Water can be added to reduce dust when feeding.
  • Growers three weeks to five weeks – 50% fine on the 1/8-inch screen and 50% medium grind on a 3/4-inch screen.
  • Broilers older than five weeks – All medium grind on a ¾ inch screen with other seed added in. 

Pigs:

Rather like chickens, you start out fine and get coarser as they grow. 

At weaning, start with a medium grind with a ¾ inch screen and make the grind coarser as they get bigger to prevent ulceration.

Large ruminants:

Don’t give fine ground grain to cattle, sheep, or goats as it can cause bloat or acidosis. Only a small percentage of their diet should be made up of grain due to this risk. You only need to crack the tough outer shell to make it more digestible.

Conclusion

Barley can be a good grain crop to grow for commercial farmers or homesteaders due to its variety of uses. Regardless of what it will be used for, making beer, animal feed, or human food, you will still need to know how to harvest barley correctly to maintain quality. 

We hope that this overview guide has helped you discover more about harvesting barley. We have many more great articles available about barley and a wide variety of other topics on our site. 

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