Barley is not just for making beer, it is also an excellent cover crop to put in your mix.
Why are we hearing more about barley? I can’t always speak to why the industry sees momentum in one species or another from year to year or from region to region (I hope it’s mostly an agronomic decision), but I can tell you that barley is a small grain whose usage could see a slight uptick.
Here’re a few reminders of the selling points of barley:
• Barley is very drought tolerant and uses substantially lower amounts of water than other small grains to grow comparable biomass.
• Barley’s silage value closely resembles whole-plant corn silage—about 90% of the value of corn silage (closer than other small grains). This is assuming the actual barley grain is part of the silage, just as with corn silage.
• Barley does have some known “built-in” suppression of root-knot nematode, the species of nematode that affects potatoes and many vegetable and cole crops.
• In areas of higher soil pH levels, barley stands up well. It can tolerate pH levels up to 8.5.
• Spring barley might be a better option than fall rye in areas where extensive fall grazing is expected.
• Compared to spring oats, spring barley planted in late summer will provide comparable tonnage in many environments, while surpassing oats and most all small grains for quality.
• The root system of winter barley can reach fairly deep levels (from 3 – 6’) depending on many variables like soil type and climate. Spring barley planted traditionally after winter will not reach those same levels.
• Barley is quick growing in the spring and faster than rye, which is crucial for a cover crop.
Barley germinates quickly, but all barleys are more susceptible to cold weather compared to winter wheat or cereal rye. And even winter barley can have issues overwintering, especially in areas with little snow cover.
Winter barleys do grow faster in the spring and that means more growth before termination and seeding soybeans. Barley also matures quicker than cereal rye and winter wheat and that means grain can be harvested 1 to 3 weeks earlier in the summer—extremely important in areas where soybean double-cropping is common.
If barley makes sense as a grain or cover crop for your operation, consider the varieties available and write and follow a plan. Both winter and spring barleys can be harder to procure and it may take a little longer to obtain seeds. And if you harvest it for grain, you need to identify an available market that will pay a competitive price.
CCA Scott Wohltman is the cover crop lead at La Crosse Seed. He focuses on educating the agricultural communities of the Midwest on the importance and benefits of cover crops.