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Sundown on winterkill

Agriculture.com Staff 03/21/2011 @ 10:27am

Winter barley has a lot of advantages, but winter hardiness isn’t among them.

“The best winter barley is only as good as a middling winter wheat,” says Pat Hayes, a barley breeder at Oregon State University at Corvallis. “You can’t move winter barley into areas where it’s risky to grow winter wheat.”

Hayes has been breeding winter barleys for 20 years, but he has seen interest grow in recent years as breeders look to winter barleys to carry traits for high beta glucan or malt characteristics.

“People are so keen on winter barleys they’re trying to grow them in Montana, Nebraska, Michigan,” he says. “It’s a risky venture.”

Winter barley can bounce back

A barley plant has 30,000 genes, but breeders only understand a couple hundred of those.

Cold tolerance is one of the most difficult traits to measure, and making winter barleys more winter hardy won’t be easy. But growers may be able to tweak their management practices enough to expand the growing region.

“I’m always amazed at winter barley,” says Juliet Windes, an Extension agronomist with the University of Idaho at Idaho Falls. She’s rated winter barley trials at 0% survivability, only to return a few weeks later and find plants growing.

“It looks dead,” she says. “I come back two weeks later and it’s got a 20% stand.”

Windes has been evaluating agronomic practices to improve the winter hardiness of winter malt barley. She’s found four strategies that will help winter survival.

1. Go easy on the seedbed  

Windes has found a fluffy seedbed is the primary reason winter barley does not survive. “Do not overprepare the seedbed,” she says.

Seedbed overpreparation encourages cracks to develop in the soil. These cracks are conduits that allow cold to reach the roots and crown, and cause damage. Cracks can also lead to soil heaving, which can rip plants out of the ground.

2. Get good seed-to-soil contact

Getting good seed-to-soil contact is critical. Windes recommends increasing the weight or pressure on the press wheels.

3. Protect seed from the wind 

Protection from cold, dry winter wind is also critical for winter barley survival.

Windes has conducted trials using ridges at planting. She has compared conventional drilling winter barley to planting the seed in a protective furrow about 4 inches high on 15-inch centers. A shank in front of the double-disc openers created the ridges in the 2007-2008 trial.

Weed control in the spring may be an issue due to reduced crop competition. The ridges protected the developing seedlings, however, so the plants were larger going into winter. The ridges also provide shelter from the cold, dry winter winds so that the plants tend to green up faster in the spring.

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