Dry Spring and Small Grain Irrigation

Richard Taylor, Extension Agronomist; rtaylor@udel.edu

Available soil moisture is becoming a critical issue in small grain fields across the entire state. For producers fortunate enough to have the means to irrigate small grain fields, now is the time to replenish the top and subsoil moisture supply, especially for winter wheat. Barley is much further along developmentally (most has already headed out) and matures earlier in the year than does winter wheat. Although I might hesitate to spend the money to irrigate barley that is already past flowering, I would not hesitate to irrigate wheat, which, for the most part, has not reached the heading stage as yet. In some irrigation work we did on wheat a number of years ago, we found that irrigation after head emergence tended to decrease yield potential, although only by a small amount and this decrease may have been related to disease pressure encouraged by higher humidity conditions created when irrigating. My preference for small grain irrigation is to apply enough water before heading to build the topsoil and subsoil moisture levels back to near field capacity. This should provide the water the crop needs to mature since wheat and barley are excellent at using available soil moisture.

As a side benefit, irrigation can help with emergence in the crop following the small grain crop. Without adequate early irrigation, it can prove difficult to rewet the soil, and especially recharge the deeper layers of soil, with enough moisture to adequately support the second crop if the dry weather continues.

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