Photo closeup of golden wheat against a blue sky
Irrigated Crop

Water Conservation From Barley to Beer

It takes a lot of water to make a beer. And not just for the actual brewing process. For MillerCoors, over 90 percent of the water used to create a single can of beer, like a Miller High Life or Coors Banquet, is attributed to agricultural production. The company has adopted the goal of reducing its water use by 10 percent by 2025 and is asking its barley and hops growers to partner to help achieve that goal.

MillerCoors contracts with 864 independent barley growers across Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to produce just the right quality malt barley for its beers. According to Wade Malchow, MillerCoors’ barley program manager, “Many of those growers have been in business with us for over 40 years.” The company’s team of agronomists manages relationships with barley growers: coordinating how much barley farmers produce, monitoring how well the crops are growing, and advising on how to achieve the best production.

Managing Limited Water Supplies

Stable water supplies help ensure a stable supply of malt barley and revenue for the growers. Mr. Malchow explained, “Water management is part of risk management for our growers and for our company. The goal is to ensure adequate supply for the grower to sell and for us to buy while not using any more water than absolutely necessary.”

MillerCoors is working with growers to adopt technology, such as variable rate sprinklers and soil monitors, and improve water delivery operations to help conserve water—even in times of plenty.

“Procedures that ensure water is shut off as soon as the grain has reached its physiological maturity, instead of putting on another round of water simply because it is available, help. Some growers have the mindset that if they have the water available, they will use it, and we need to try and change that mentality whenever possible. That is the low-hanging fruit of management.”

In Mr. Malchow’s experience, the real challenge is managing water in times of want, so the company is encouraging growers to facilitate an increase in soil health to increase the amount of water the soil can hold and to adjust irrigation output according to what kind of natural precipitation has fallen.

Working with Growers

When it looks like water use may be limited, the company is on the ground working with growers to determine the ideal time to access irrigated water. For MillerCoors, the goal is to minimize the effect a lack of water will have on crop yields, while at the same time honoring water rights.

“Sometimes, our growers need to use the water despite our desire to conserve it. That is a difficult dynamic, and one that not everyone understands. So we have been educating our company and our consumers about water use in the West, conservation, and the incentives to use less water.”

In addition, MillerCoors has been educating its growers about customer expectations, which influence what the company asks of its growers.

Cathy Davis is one of those growers. She, like her father before her, grows barley in Colorado’s windblown and arid San Luis Valley. Since working with MillerCoors, she has adopted water-saving changes to promote conservation: adjusting her sprinklers, adding water saving nozzles, and increasing the precision with which she times her watering schedule. Those changes have given her “more bang for the buck,” translating to increased yields with reductions in water use.

Conservation Planning

For MillerCoors, water conservation is a critical component to its larger conservation plan. Mr. Malchow explained that because agriculture accounts for much of the company’s water use, “if we want to move the needle on the overall water use that goes into the product, that is where we have to concentrate.”

That means growers for MillerCoors will be asked to make simple changes that can help reduce water use, as well as stretch for greater efficiency. For Mr. Malchow, “Watching irrigation timing, being conscious of exactly what it takes to produce an on-time and high-quality crop without using excess water, and capturing and using data are all part of what it will take to achieve our sustainability goals without sacrificing the quality of the product.”

Aligning Goals and Practices

Mr. Malchow described some of MillerCoors’ efforts to promote conservation: creating good data baselines, investing in communication tools with growers, and gathering information from farmers on an array of inputs. He stressed the need for MillerCoors to continue to respect the privacy of farmer’s proprietary data while learning enough to maximize its understanding of water use.

“Farming is a competitive business, and many of the growers take great pride in the techniques they use to produce a competitive crop. We are investing a lot of time and effort to determine what information we can extract, what it means, and how we can best use it to inform discussions with growers and other partners. We ask a lot, so we try to be mindful of what we ask.”

That sensitivity translates to the field. Ms. Davis works with a field manager from MillerCoors whenever she needs advice or feedback on crop yields. In addition, MillerCoors runs an experimental farm in the San Luis Valley, where it is always trying out new varieties of barley. For Ms. Davis, “It feels like [MillerCoors] is out here with me, so I am not going (and growing) it alone.”

Mr. Malchow summarized the dynamic: “The things growers need to do in order to stay viable in the long term will align with the goals MillerCoors has for better conservation and water use.”