So you want to grow winter grains

by Courtney Llewellyn

Perhaps our other posts about growing grains have piqued your interest and you want to add some winter cereal grains to your operation. Knowing which varieties to plant is key; fortunately, updates on agronomic research were also part of the recent virtual Grains Week series.

Winter Vs. Spring Cereal Grains

Winter cereal grains – wheat, triticale, rye and barley – require a vernalization period to initiate flowering, which begins when the temperature near the crown reaches 48º F and occurs over a four- to eight-week period. Facultative varieties are generally less cold tolerant but require a shorter vernalization period and often flower earlier, according to Heather Darby of UVM Extension.

What are the benefits of winter grains? The planting window is easier to obtain; weed control can be easier; yield potential tends to be higher; and there may be more water availability. “In drier areas, growing in winter helps to capture moisture from snow to grow the crop,” Darby noted.

There are challenges, however. Fertility management is a big one, due to nitrogen losses over winter and the availability of nutrients at various growth stages. Winter survival, especially due to temperature fluctuation, is serious (more on that below). And establishment moisture may be hard to find. Darby said not every environment is conducive to winter cereal grains.

Matt Leavitt of Albert Lea Seed spoke about variety selection, which should depend on your intended end use, the requirements of your end user and planting date, which is critical. “Winter barley, wheat and triticale are all very sensitive to planting date,” he said. (Winter rye isn’t quite as sensitive.)

Make sure to take into account the things you do have control over – planting date, planting rate, the right crop for the right field, rotation and variety selection – and the things you don’t have control over – snowfall, the severity of the winter, moisture in autumn and spring and spring heat – before going full steam ahead.

Dealing with Winterkill

UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Ellen Mallory said grains are excellent crops to add to your growing rotation. In her region, however, “we’re having trouble with winterkill, and many farmers have been reluctant to plant winter grains.”

To monitor that issue, they’re surveying farmers in northern New England, tracking their crops from planting through harvest. They’re looking at factors like weather and winter conditions (like snow cover and soil temperature), site characteristics (soil type, pH, compaction and even field slope) and management (surface residue, variety, seed quality, depth, date and rate and plant development going into winter) for crop performance. They want to discover causes for winterkill and create strategies to improve winter survival.

One of the biggest problems lately has been pink snow mold. “We’ve been having the worst infections we’ve seen in Maine in years with snow cover over unfrozen ground,” Mallory said. “Many plants will likely survive, but many will be set back.”

Hypothetically, say you’ve done everything you can to avoid winterkill and it still happens – what do you do? First, decide if it’s worth keeping the crop. This depends on the portion remaining, the evenness of the stand vs. the size of bare spots and number of live plants per square foot (20 – 30 is good; 12 – 15 should be adequate but you should consider topdressing with nitrogen; fewer than 12, consider replanting).

After that, Mallory said you need to decide whether to topdress to boost tillering. Conduct your tiller counts at spring green-up. If the number is low, topdress with nitrogen early to increase tillers and spikes; if it’s high, delay the topdressing. “Where we had a low tiller density, we put on different rates of topdressing, and at the time of harvest, it increased tillering,” she said. “Topdressing worked, and resulted in an increase in yield. With high tiller numbers, we saw increasing spikes with nitrogen, but in terms of yield, high tiller number resulted in lodging – and that reinforced the decision to delay topdressing.”

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