Barley grain for ruminants: A global treasure or tragedy
© Nikkhah; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2012
Received: 8 January 2012
Accepted: 9 July 2012
Published: 9 July 2012
Barley grain (Hordeum vulgare L.) is characterized by a thick fibrous coat, a high level of ß-glucans and simply-arranged starch granules. World production of barley is about 30 % of that of corn. In comparison with corn, barley has more protein, methionine, lysine, cysteine and tryptophan. For ruminants, barley is the third most readily degradable cereal behind oats and wheat. Due to its more rapid starch fermentation rate compared with corn, barley also provides a more synchronous release of energy and nitrogen, thereby improving microbial nutrient assimilation. As a result, feeding barley can reduce the need for feeding protected protein sources. However, this benefit is only realized if rumen acidity is maintained within an optimal range (e.g., > 5.8 to 6.0); below this range, microbial maintenance requirements and wastage increase. With a low pH, microbial endotoxines cause pro-inflammatory responses that can weaken immunity and shorten animal longevity. Thus, mismanagement in barley processing and feeding may make a tragedy from this treasure or pearl of cereal grains. Steam-rolling of barley may improve feed efficiency and post-rumen starch digestion. However, it is doubtful if such processing can improve milk production and feed intake. Due to the need to process barley less extensively than other cereals (as long as the pericarp is broken), consistent and global standards for feeding and processing barley could be feasibly established. In high-starch diets, barley feeding reduces the need for capacious small intestinal starch assimilation, subsequently reducing hindgut starch use and fecal nutrient loss. With its nutritional exclusivities underlined, barley use will be a factual art that can either matchlessly profit or harm rumen microbes, cattle production, farm economics and the environment.
KeywordsBarley Cereal Ruminant Starch Treasure
Barley (Hordeum Spp.) is a cereal derived from the annual grass Hordeum Vulgare. This multipurpose grain deserves a top place in the farm for feeding livestock. It is irreplaceable by any other grain in beef and dairy diets for producing capacious rumen microbial yields . This review delineates the nutritional and commercial status of barley and critically describes opportunities for its optimum use by rumen microbes, host ruminants, farmers and the environment.
World production and distribution of barley
Top barley producers in the world (MMT)
During 2004, approximately 2000 kt of barley and wheat were used by livestock in Australia representing 60 % of all cereals fed . Oats, sorghum, and triticale contributed only 20 %, 10 % and 10 %. About 40 % of the barley was fed to feedlot cattle, 34 % to dairy cows, 20 % to pigs, 6 % to grazing ruminants, and < 1 % to poultry. In Canada, barley is primary used in beef and dairy cattle diets although some finds its way into swine diets [4, 5]. Barley makes up 40 % of feed grain usage, equivalent to 7.3 MMT compared with 5.4 MMT for corn [1, 3, 5]. The U.S. (1.8 MMT), Japan (1.1 MMT) and Saudi Arabia (0.6 MMT) are major importers of Canadian barley [1–3].
Nutritional value of barley
Nutrient composition of barley compared with other cereals (g/kg)
Nutrient (as fed)
Crude protein (CP)
Undegradable CP, g/kg CP
Neutral detergent fibre
Acid detergent fibre
Methionine + Cysteine
Mineral and vitamin content of the major cereal grains (g/kg of DM)
Vit A, 1000 IU/kg
Vit E, 1000 IU/kg
Average density and nutrient composition of North Dakota two-rowed and six-rowed barley varieties
Test weight, kg/bushel
Dry matter, g/kg
Neutral detergent fiber, g/kg
Acid detergent fiber, g/kg
Crude protein, g/kg
Such versatilities in the energy value of barley originate from differential digestive systems and assimilative capacity between livestock species as well as disparities in chemical and physical properties of different barley samples . Accordingly, assortment measures for breeding barley most suitable for different livestock can be developed. Barleys with low hull and fiber content, fragile cell walls, and thus low soluble arabinoxylans and ß-glucans and rapidly accessible starches are optimal for pigs. For poultry, samples with lower non-starch polysaccharides and thus lower viscosity, and low condensed tannins are greatly needed. On the other hand, for ruminants, cultivars with higher fiber and soluble arabinoxylans specifically with harder kernels to produce slower rumen starch degradation rates (i.e., low acidosis index) are preferred.
Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy calibrations have been developed for premium grains in livestock programs to predict the available energy intakes for poultry, pigs, with other grain properties such as acidosis index. These calibrations help to monitor grains within barley breeding programs and to assign the most suitable grain samples to the appropriate livestock production system.
Anti-nutritional factors in barley
Anti-nutritional factors occur in barley. A mycotoxin that grows on barley plants and barley is deoxynivalenol also known as vomitoxin. It is generated by a fusarium that grows on moist barley and wheat under humid conditions during the early heading stages. Nonetheless, evidence suggests no effects of vomitoxin on feed intake or milk production of cows.
Feeding ruminants barley together with other grains and enzymes
Processing barley for beef and dairy cattle
In vivo ruminal starch and protein degradation (% of intake) of differently proceed barley compared with wheat, corn and sorghum 1
Rumen degradation, %
Post-rumen digestion, %
Total tract digestion, %
Aggressive and high-pressure exposure to heat may reduce the degradation rate of barley . This reduction is important in vivo, especially directly after feeding when rumen fermentation peaks. Such moderated barley degradation rates can improve feed efficiency likely via increased rumen pH and attenuated rumen acidosis during fermentation peaks as well as increased small intestinal escape or partially-digested starch assimilation . Likewise, flame roasting of barley reduced dry matter and crude protein rumen degradation despite no effects on total tract digestibilities . Feeding roasted barley instead of rolled barley twice a day improved milk yield by 3 kg . Nonetheless, in vivo actual data (versus in vitro and in situ estimates) on post-rumen and especially small intestinal digestion of protein and starch from differently processed barley in high-producing ruminants are greatly limited.
Feeding yearling steers steam-rolled barley instead of high moisture corn in diets with 650 g grain, 160 g forage, 50 g supplement and 140 g potato residues per kg of diet did not affect weight gain, but decreased dry matter intake cubically with increased levels of barley . In finishing diets with 840 g grain, 120 g alfalfa haylage and 40 g supplement per kg of diet, dry-rolled barley and corn affected cattle performance, carcass properties, and the incidence of digestive disorders similarly . Replacing dry-rolled corn with tempered barley in 60 g/kg forage finishing diets resulted in no differences in intake and weight gain in response to different ratios of the two grains . However, steers fed the blend of grains had greater carcass weights, yield grades, and 12th rib fat than did steers fed single grains. These data suggest more efficient uses of barley when fed in combination with corn rather than when fed alone.
Production, digestion, and metabolism of mid-lactation Holstein cows fed ground versus steam-rolled barley-based total mixed rations containing corn silage and alfalfa hay
Level of barley
26 % barley
32.5 % barley
Dietary starch, %
Dietary neutral detergent fiber, %
Dietary acid detergent fiber, %
Dietary crude protein, %
Dry matter intake, kg/d
Fat corrected milk, kg/d
Milk fat yield, kg/d
Milk protein yield, kg/d
Chewing time, min/d
Total tract dry matter digestibility %
Based on NRC recommendations , dairy diets should contain 25 % to 28 % neutral detergent fiber, 75 % of which must be supplied by forages. This is needed for adequate chewing and healthy rumen function, and to prevent milk fat depression and laminitis . Barley-based diets usually supply greater amounts of neutral detergent fiber than corn-based diets. However, due to the inadequate effectiveness of the neutral detergent fiber of barley in stimulating chewing and ensalivation as well as the greater degradation rate of barley than corn, barley-fed cows require greater effective forage fiber than corn fed cows . Normally, rumen cellulolytic bacteria numbers are sufficiently maintained under pH > 6.0. Thus, so long as barley feeding does not lower rumen pH below 5.8 to 6.0, it can replace the more expensive corn in dairy diets.
Recent findings compellingly suggest that finely ground barley is not inferior to the more expensive steam-rolled barley if dietary barley inclusion rate is kept sensibly moderate at ≤ 300 g/kg of diet dry matter [39, 40] (Table 6). Even at 350 g/kg barley, except for a modest improvement in feed efficiency, milk production and dry matter intake were similar between ground and steam-rolled barley fed cows .
Overfeeding barley is an easy shortcut to rumen acidosis and triggered pro-inflammatory responses of depressed immune function [41, 42]. Feeding > 35 % barley/kg of dietary dry matter is under no circumstances recommended. Thus, whilst barley is a matchless source of rapidly released energy for efficient rumen microbial mass and volatile fatty acid yields, its dietary use must be an art to allow such benefits to become a reality in optimizing production and health concomitantly . As much as being the pearl of cereals, indispensable for persistent peaks in beef and dairy production, improper feeding of no other grain can be as much economically and environmentally devastating as barley [43, 44].
Rumen physiology and health aspects of barley feeding
Cows fed overly high amounts of rapidly fermentable starches such as barley are very likely to experience periods of subacute rumen acidosis which can increase the incidence of laminitis [45, 46]. High levels of ground cereals are also thought to predispose cattle to lameness, resulting from acidosis. These challenges occur mostly because barley, regardless of processing technique, has a much greater extent of rumen fermentation and higher fermentation rate than other processed grains, preceded only by dry-rolled wheat grain (Table 5, Figure 3). Recent evidence suggests that with optimal barley inclusion rate in dairy rations, ground barley can be as palatable and effectively utilized as steam-processed barley [1, 18] (Table 6). Thus, pragmatically, it is not grinding that is problematic, but it is rather the very high dietary levels of barley that introduces serious challenges to the rumen and cow metabolism and immunity [1, 41].
A common challenge in optimizing rumen fermentation is the asynchrony in fermentation rate and patterns of protein and energy [1, 49–55] (Figure 5). Proteins and carbohydrates have rapidly, moderately, and slowly degradable fractions and each of these nourish specific microbial populations. In addition, proteins are usually degraded more rapidly than carbohydrates upon feeding (Figure 5). This means that the maximum rumen energetic potential is reached when proteins have already gone through their maximum degradation. Thus, loss of nitrogen and energy as ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide would result.
Conclusions and implications
Barley grain is known for its thick fibrous coat, high content of ß-glucans and less complicated starch granules. With about 150 MMT of annual yield, world production of barley is about 30 % of corn. Universally, barley is typically cheaper and less demanded by non-ruminants and humans than corn and wheat. Besides greater protein, barley is richer in methionine, lysine, cysteine, and tryptophan than corn. Barley is considered highly degradable in the rumen. Owing to its more rapid and extensive rumen starch and nitrogen fermentation compared with ground corn, barley may provide more synchronous energy and nitrogen release, which can improve microbial and host nutrient assimilation. Proper barley feeding management may reduce expensive undegradable protein requirements. Conversely, with improper dietary inclusion rate and processing, no other grain can as easily be a shortcut to prolonged rumen acidosis, microbial endotoxin release, pro-inflammatory responses, and suppressed immune function as barley. Due to the need to process barley less extensively than corn, sorghum or wheat (as long as the pericarp is broken), establishing consistent and global standards for feeding and processing could be more feasible for barley than other grains. Feeding barley to modern ruminants must be a factual art that will matchlessly profit or otherwise dramatically impair rumen microbes, host health and production, farm economics, and the environment. Optimal dietary inclusion rates of barley are where global tragedies could be well avoided by a treasure.
Doctor Akbar Nikkhah, PH.D., is Highly Distinguished Professor of Science and Ruminant Nutrition, Highly Distinguished Mentor of Science Education and Dissemination, and Highly Distinguished Science Composer/Speaker currently in the Department of Animal Sciences, University of Zanjan in Iran; and Highly Distinguished Elite-Generating Scientist of the National Elite Foundation in Iran. He is also Highly Distinguished Global Peace Leader.
Acid Detergent Fiber
Neutral Detergent Fiber
Subacute Rumen Acidosis
Total Mixed Ration
Volatile Fatty Acids.
The Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, and University of Zanjan, Iran are gratefully acknowledged for supporting the author’s programs of optimizing science education worldwide.
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