Barley is a grass with a swollen grain that is similar to wheat that can be ground to produce a flour suitable for the production of bread. However unlike wheat, barley has always been particularly important in the production of beers and ales. Barley is the second most widely grown arable crop in the UK with around 1.1 million hectares under cultivation and today's varieties trace their origins back over 10,000 years to the first farmers.
Barley has remained a successful cereal crop because of its short growing time and ability to survive in poor conditions. Although it is grown throughout most of the UK it is often the dominant arable crop in the north and west of Britain where growing conditions are most difficult and less favourable for wheat.
Each year the UK produces around 6.5 million tonnes of barley. Roughly 1.5 million tonnes are exported, 2 million tonnes are used in the brewing and distilling trades with 3 million tonnes being used for animal feed.
Barley is striking because of the long spikes that emerge from the end of each grain. These are known as awns. Barley is also easily identifiable on breezy days in the early summer when "waves" blow through the crop.
Although barley is versatile and tolerant it is not as productive as wheat. As a result it is often grown as the second cereal in a rotation where potential yields are lower; for example a field might first grow wheat, then barley, then a break crop like sugar beet or peas before returning to wheat. Barley can also be grown continually in the same field, a process known as continuous cropping. This was relatively common in the 1970s and 1980s but is rarely if ever practiced now.
Barley can be sown in either the autumn (this is known as winter barley) or in the spring. The proportion of each varies from year to year but is generally around 50:50. Winter barleys are higher yielding but of poorer quality and are mostly used in animal feeds whereas the spring varieties are often used for malting. The winter crop is normally harvested in July with those spring sown following about a month later.