The agronomic art of growing small grains


By Greg McGlinch, CCA, Wright State University Lake Campus, Agriculture Professor

Farmers are like artists when seeding winter small grains, especially if the grain is intended for a specialty or seed market. The seed is the paint, the land the canvas, and the equipment a brush. Farmers must pay attention to special details and make sure there are no flaws in the agriculture masterpiece, as they have only one chance to get it right.

Greg McGlinch, CCA. Photo by Wright State University Lake Campus.

In Ohio, farmers are familiar with soft red winter wheat but with the onset of new opportunities, like malting barley and cereal rye, farmers may need to tweak their management methods. Management practices are similar among winter small grains; however, farmers may need to pay special attention to certain aspects of fertility and care, depending on the intended market. What specifics are needed for the production of high-quality small grains? 


Winter small grains are challenged by fall conditions of either being too dry, or in the case of recent years, too wet in hopes that they survive the brutality of Mother Nature over the winter. While Ohio is blessed with an average of 32 and 42 inches of precipitation annually in the northern and southern parts of the state, respectively, it can potentially take a toll on the survival of our small grains in the spring, according to NOAA. The cool, wet conditions of our spring, along with a potentially brutal winter, could have a tremendous impact on plant survival. While small grains are challenging, they are rewarding in economic and environmental benefits. What can we do to prepare for a successful establishment and survival? 

Field preparation and planting date

Selecting a field with adequate drainage allows for timely seeding, fertilization, and field activities to maximize establishment of small grains. Small grains following soybeans allow for reduced disease and insect pressure through timely seeding after the Fly Free date, from the end of September and into the first part of October, depending on your location in Ohio. Selection of an early soybean variety could also allow for timely fertilization and field preparation. 


Farmers looking at making decisions about small grain fertility must know two things: 1) soil test levels and 2) yield potential. Understanding these items help to make an informed decision on the nutrient sources and amount needed, thus saving money and reducing losses to the environment. 

The Tri-State Fertility Guide is a resource to provide guidance on soil test levels. Soil test levels (Mehlich-3) greater than 50 ppm phosphorus and greater than 170 ppm potassium, are sufficient to meet small grains nutrient needs, requiring no additional fertilizer or nutrients. If soil test levels are below 50 ppm phosphorus and/or 170 ppm potassium, refer to the Tri-State Fertility Guide for recommended application rates ( 

What about nitrogen? 

It is a nutrient that is important in small grain production but can lead to additional management challenges. Challenges associated with excessive nitrogen is lodging, the bending of the grain crop, or increased grain protein levels. Too little nitrogen can lead to reduced yields or low protein levels in malting barley. In the fall, 20 pounds to 30 pounds of nitrogen is adequate for small grain establishment. Spring is generally where a farmer needs to be aware of the crop’s nitrogen needs for the anticipated yield and quality. It is important to understand quality requirements and field nutrient history when making nitrogen applications. Below are a few examples of spring nitrogen rates for various small grains.

• Malting barley, it is recommended to apply between 60 pounds and 80 pounds of nitrogen to meet acceptable protein levels at or below 12.5%. 

• Soft Red Winter Wheat, with an anticipated 90 bushel per acre yield potential, it would require 90 pounds of nitrogen/acre after a fall nitrogen application of 20 pounds of nitrogen per acre. 

-Winter Cereal Rye, with an anticipated yield of over 50 bushels per acre, would require a spring application rate of between 40 pounds and 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Be aware of prior manure or nitrogen applications as residual nitrogen could create lodging issues. 

Seeding rates, row width and depth

            Row width, depth, and seeding rates are consistent across all small grains. Planting small grains at a depth between 1 to 1.5 inches allows for proper seed to soil contact. Row widths of 7.5 inches combined with a seeding rate of greater than 1.5 million seeds per acre are ideal for maximizing yield and quality. The combination of these two practices allows for consistent tillering and grain maturity, reducing weed pressure and lodging. 

            While the information provided feels like a paint by numbers kit, it is a guide to allow farmers an opportunity to customize their winter small grains management plan for the establishment of their agronomic masterpiece.         

What are some additional tips for success?

Use nutrient sources, primarily dry fertilizers, that are not contaminated with other small grains, especially in a fall nutrient application. 

Use high quality seed with fungicide treatment if the selected field tends to stay wet.

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