Small Break from La Nina and Topdressing Small Grains

The New year started out especially good for local farmers with some excellent rainfall and snow. Dryland small grains would not have lasted much longer without the New Years Eve rain and snow event. The 2 to 4’ of snow following the rainfall was an extra blessing for everyone. While the rule of thumb “10 to 1” ratio states for every 10” of snow you actually have 1” of actual moisture, it always seems snow makes things much wetter than just a rain event.

According to the Michigan State University factuality James Decker’s article “Snow a welcome sight for farmers” snow can also contribute to soil fertility. Snowflakes trap dissolved organic nitrogen, nitrate and ammonium in the atmosphere, delivering it free-of-charge to fields. This extra boost in N is not enough to change your fertility plan, but it sure helps and may explain why grain seems to green-up so much after a snow.

Whether you are growing small grains for grain, grazing, hay or silage production, proper timing of topdressing is critical to your overall yield. Timing is especially critical if you are planning to harvest grain. Regardless of how you are using your small grains, ideally topdressing will occur in time for the N to be moved into the rootzone well before jointing (Feekes 5) begins. Timing is the most important aspect in getting the most economic benefit from your nitrogen topdress input cost.

Jointing or the growth stage Feekes 5 in small grains refers to the time in the development of the plant when an individual stem now has a node in it (the stem is elongating as the head has been initiated). After this point most all tillering of the plant will cease. You should still have plenty of time to get your grain topdressed, precipitation in the forecast will be the trigger this year.

Why is it important to topdress while plants are still tillering and what is tillering? Tillers are additional stems that develop off the main shoot of the plant. Primary tillers form in the axils of the first four or more true leaves of the main stem. Secondary tillers may develop from the base of primary tillers if conditions favor tiller development. So, in a nutshell tillering is what adds additional forage to your stand, thickens it up. Even a thin stand of small grains can benefit from topdressing as it will help increase tillering and help to compensate for a thin stand.

When will we reach jointing or Feekes 5? It seems each year this question gets harder to answer. It is more dependent on weather than the calendar for this reason scouting is the most accurate means of determining jointing. However, an average time frame would probably be late-February to mid-March. During a drier year like this if you see some moisture in the forecast, it is probably best to go ahead and get your topdress out.

Typically, UAN or Urea are utilized for topdressing small grains, but topdress sources for N vary and I recommend you check prices for your best option. If applying early and using urea, you might consider a mixture of coated and uncoated urea to provide some initial N and some later released N. For grain production a rule of thumb is 1.5 to 2 pound of N per bushel of estimated grain. For grazing typically 50 to 60 units of N following each graze down are suggested.

This recent rain and snow event has really brightened farmers mood and is truly beneficial to everyone, but we are not out of the woods just yet.

The La Nina weather pattern we are under is not predicted to let up anytime soon. Being ready for any precipitation event and continuing to manage for dry conditions for at least the next several months is still the best course of action.

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