Producing Barley

Spring 1999

By Rick Kersbergen
Waldo County Cooperative Extension

Note: Much of this information is taken from UMCE bulletin #2163 of the same title, written by Matt Williams, Ed Plissey and Greg Porter.

Maine’s cool climate and uniform rainfall favor barley production. Barley rapidly develops an extensive root system and needs a moderately deep, well-drained soil. Timing of several management practices is critical to obtain optimum yield and quality.

Much of the soil in Aroostook County and in many areas of central and southern Maine is well drained enough that the necessary early planting of barley can be done. The Maine Farms Project has submitted a proposal to the EPA that focuses on increasing small grain production, including barley, in the Kennebec Valley region. Note, however, that barley is not tolerant of low soil pH. A pH of 6.0 or above is necessary for optimum yields, and a soil pH of 5.5 or below will reduce yields severely. Oats are much more tolerant of low pH levels and therefore have been grown traditionally as a rotation crop with potatoes.

The demand for barley fluctuates with the corn market, as both are energy feeds. The trend has been for barley demand to increase when corn prices from the Midwest are high. Problems with storage and processing limit some of the potential use of barley on Maine dairy farms. The greatest expenses in raising barley involve harvesting (using a combine) and storing (about $1.25 a bushel for a storage bin). Some producers are beginning to discuss custom harvesting.

Barley Varieties

Variety selection is critical for yield, straw strength, test weight and other traits. Barley varieties are either six-row or two-row types. This refers to the number of rows of developed kernels on a mature seed head. Two-row types develop more seed heads per acre, while six-row types develop more seeds per head. Grains from two-row types are consistently larger. Yields per acre have been highest for six-row types when narrow row spacings are used (i.e., 4- to 5-inch drills). Test weight per bushel is important to market value: 48 pounds per bushel is the standard. Two-row types have consistently produced higher test weight than six-row types. Test weight is highly correlated with the available energy content for livestock feed. (Higher test weight = higher energy content.) Knowledge of test weight is critical for good purchasing decisions. An extensive series of barley performance trials has been conducted at Aroostook Farm arid on commercial farms in Aroostook County over four growing seasons. Based on these trials, the following varieties are recommended:

Chapais is a six-row feed variety released in 1989 by Agriculture Canada. It has been slightly higher yielding than Robust in Maine trails, but has a relatively low test weight (the 1989-90 average was 46.7 pounds per bushel). Chapais is up to 10 inches shorter than Leger and is the most lodging resistant of the recommended varieties.

Etienne is a six-row feed variety released in 1989 by Agriculture Canada. It has good disease resistance and was slightly higher yielding than Leger in Maine trials. It is among the best of the six-row types available for test weight (the 1989-90 average was 48 pounds per bushel). Etienne is up to 8 inches shorter than Leger and has good lodging resistance.

Leger is a six-row feed variety released in 1984 by Agriculture Canada (Charlottetown). Leger has good disease resistance. It has been lower yielding than the other recommended varieties in our Maine trials, but is among the best six-row types available for test weight (the 1989-90 average was 48 pounds per bushel). Leger is tall and is the least lodging resistant of our recommended varieties.

Robust is a six-row malting variety released in 1983 by Minnesota. It has good disease resistance but is susceptible to loose smut. It has been high yielding in Maine trials and is among the best of the six-row types available for test weight (the 1989-90 average was 48 pounds per bushel). Robust is tall, but it has better lodging resistance than Leger.

Rodeo is a two-row, private Canadian feed variety that is available through New York seed houses and Canadian suppliers. It has fair disease resistance, but has been equal to Robust in yields. This variety has a high test weight (the 1989-90 average was 50 pounds per bushel). Rodeo is short and has fair to good lodging resistance.

Semira is a two-row, private Canadian variety that is available from New York seed houses and a local cooperative. It has fair disease resistance and yields equal to or slightly higher than those of Rodeo. This variety produces high-test weight grain (the 1989-90 average was 49 pounds per bushel). Semira is short and has fair to good lodging resistance.

Planting Date and Seed Bed Preparation

Barley yields depend on the number of seed heads per acre and seeds per head. Heads on both the main stem and the tillers make up the plant population, hence the number of tillers that produce viable heads is critical to yield. Tillers depend on adventitious roots that develop from nodes off the main stem. Unlike the main stem, which derives nutrients from the seed, tillers and adventitious roots depend on the products of photosynthesis for initiation and growth.

Barley must be planted early to take advantage of long daylight hours (photoperiod), which help provide shorter, stronger straw and higher grain yield. Early planting also leads to an earlier grain ripening time, which prevents late-season disease development and allows lower grain moisture levels before harvest. This makes planting date and planting depth critical for barley, as is standard for all spring cereal crops.

Barley should be planted as soon as the soil can be safely worked without causing soil compaction. This is often possible in late April or early May. Delaying planting from the first week in May to mid- or late May can decrease yields by up to 20 to 40 bushels per acre. Delayed planting will also hinder weed control, especially if you are growing organically. By planting early, you take advantage of the quick growth of barley, and weed competition will be reduced.

Spring disking and light harrowing are often sufficient for tillage on these soils that have previously been in crop production. Soils with heavy crop residues on the surface should be tilled deeply or moldboard plowed the previous fall to allow for early drying and early spring tillage. The seedbed should be fine, firm and smooth. If the soil is too loose, seeds may be planted too deep and germination may be reduced or delayed. Poor stands, lower yields, and increased weed competition will result. Pre-plant firming of the seed bed with a land roller will help firm the soil and improve the seed bed.

Seeding Methods and Rates

Seeding depth should be 1 inch under most conditions. Unfortunately, placement with conventional grain drills can vary from 1 to 4 inches due to uneven seedbeds or soft soil conditions. Firm, level seedbeds avoid this problem. If your plants emerge unevenly, planting depth is usually the culprit; seedling vigor is greatly reduced if seeds are planted too deep.

Seeding barley with a grain drill followed by a roller or culti-packer is the preferred planting practice. Alternatively, barley seed may be broadcast, but extreme care should be taken to avoid covering the seed too deep when working the seed into the soil. A lightweight harrow or a disk may be used to incorporate broadcast barley seed. Care should be taken to set the harrow shallow. After working in the barley seed, firm the seedbed with a land roller or culti-packer.

Barley should be seeded at a rate of 2 to 2-1/4 bushels per acre (96 to 120 pounds). The higher rate is especially recommended for six-row varieties, since they do not tiller as well as two-row types. A high plant population (approximately 1,450,000 plants per acre) is essential for good yields and good weed control. If you plan to purchase new planting equipment, narrow row spacing (4 to 5 inches) should be considered.

Nutrient Management

Barley responds well to high fertility and is a heavy nitrogen user, using over 100 lbs. of N or an average of 15 tons of cow manure per acre. Soil tests should be taken to determine pH and fertility. Lime should be applied to reach a minimum pH of 5.7. Soil tests with values greater than 23 pounds of phosphorus per acre and 4 percent base saturation for potassium require no extra phosphorus. If values are less, apply phosphorus and potassium according to soil test recommendations.

Weed Control and Underseeding

As mentioned, proper planting time is crucial to good weed control in barley production. Grass weeds, both annual and perennial, need to be controlled the season before planting.

Many growers may want to underseed their barley crop with a legume (usually red clover) to take advantage of nitrogen fixation and establishment of a sod crop to follow the barley harvest. Underseeding generally will not reduce yields, but may make straw harvest more difficult.

Harvesting Barley

Barley ripens earlier than most oat and wheat varieties grown in Maine. Grain loss during barley harvest can become a significant factor in profitability. Very ripe barley may develop serious shatter losses during harvest. A valuable crop may be better harvested at a higher moisture level and dried before storage to prevent harvest shatter loss. Barley dries easily, and harvesting at 16 percent moisture often returns enough extra yield to exceed drying costs. This is due to reduced shattering losses. Barley should be stored at 12 percent moisture (which is very important). . Whole barley, free from awns and chaff, will maintain test weight and reduce costs associated with shrink. The buyer feeding livestock is interested in whole, lightly crimped barley. A test weight (at 12 percent moisture) of at least 48 pounds per bushel is preferred.

Barley straw can be utilized just as oatstraw is; however, the leaf blade tends to be somewhat narrower. It may also be a darker color than the “golden” shade we often expect from oats, but should be just as useful for mulch and or compost.

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