By Michael Hogan
HAMBURG, April 11 (Reuters) - Europe's extra long winter could spell problems for brewers as bitterly cold frosts have hindered spring planting of barley, a key ingredient in malt whisky and beer.
Early to mid-March is viewed as the best spring barley planting time in much of northern Europe. But sowing has barely begun in some regions.
'Spring barley is one of the main victims of the extended winter cold this year,' said Claus Keller, grains specialist with German commodity analysts F.O. Licht. 'There is certainly growing concern about the impact of the long extended winter on spring barley crops.'
Risks to the overall EU crop, which normally produces some 20-25 million tonnes, are rising as sowings are now several weeks late in several European countries, Keller said, adding that tighter supplies for malting cannot be ruled out.
Traders also raised the prospect of farmers switching to maize, which has a later growing cycle.
'Weather in much of north Europe will not be good enough until this weekend to start spring barley sowings, and with a growth period of about 120 days, this could be too late for a chance of a good crop,' a German barley trader said.
Excellent spring and summer weather could enable some crops to recover, but observers say sowings are worryingly late in the main EU producing countries.
Winter weather has hampered spring barley sowing in France and the prospect of a smaller crop has raised malting barley price premiums. Some farmers have missed the best sowing period between mid-February and mid-March.
France's farm ministry estimates farmers will sow 484,000 hectares this year, down 29.7 percent on 2012. But a large part of the fall is because winter grains have not suffered much frost damage and do not need replanting.
'We have gone from a rather heavy supply outlook for malting barley a couple of months ago to a less comfortable situation,' said Strategie Grains crop analyst Laurine Simon.
The long winter has slowed plant development, possibly leaving French spring barley vulnerable to poor spring and summer weather too.
'We are in a high-risk phase,' said a French broker. 'The spring barley plants have not grown much and if conditions do not improve we could face a smaller, lower-quality harvest.'
French price premiums for malting barley over feed barley are around 50 euros a tonne, up from 10 euros last season.
TIGHT SOWING WINDOW
A slump in German sowings is also expected. Spring barley sowings were on March 13 estimated to fall 34 percent to 380,000 hectares because scarce frost damage means little winter grain needs replanting.
'Such estimates will be reduced as March 20 was the best planting date in Germany and many farmers have not even started sowing yet,' a German analyst said.
Continued cold weather threatens British spring plantings, although a reduction in winter crop sowings should mean more land is available for spring barley.
'We have got a lot more land available for spring cropping for the coming harvest,' said Jack Watts, analyst at Britain's Home-Grown Cereals Authority. 'Typically spring barley is the spring crop of choice, so we are expecting to see a noticeable increase in spring barley area.'
Watts estimates the British spring barley area could expand by 30 percent, but the long winter has hindered sowings.
'We are getting towards the back-end of the optimum planting window now,' said Watts. 'Really it needs to be in the ground by the end of April - getting into late April and you are starting to compromise yield potential. The clock is ticking.'
Crop difficulties could mean higher materials costs for brewers, although it is too early to say if beer prices, and brewer profits, could be affected.
F.O. Licht's Keller said spring barley plants could catch up some of the lost time if there is highly favourable spring and summer weather. But delayed growth could also mean spring barley will be more vulnerable to lost yields if spring and summer weather is poor.
'If fears of reduced spring barley yields are confirmed, this could create a larger EU import demand. This could compel EU consumers to purchase on the world market,' Keller added.
(Reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Valerie Parent in Paris and Sarah McFarlane in London; Editing by Veronica Brown and Tom Pfeiffer) Keywords: EUROPE BARLEY/BREWING
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