Crop advisor casebook: Why the odd striping in these barley seed heads?

A Crop Advisor's Solution from the October 13, 2020 issue of Grainews

Purple stripes were running along the length of 
the kernels.
Alynn Hagstrom. photo: Supplied

Jo, a cattle producer who grows barley as livestock feed at her farm near Kindersley, Sask., came by the office one morning in early August to show me a few plants from her crop. She was worried some kind of disease had taken hold in the field of Champion feed barley, which had caused some odd striping to appear in the seed heads.

When I examined the plants, I could see purple stripes running along the length of the kernels. I hand thrashed a few husks to check whether there was striping along the grain as well but that wasn’t the case.

The barley was going to be harvested for grain and then the straw would be baled for feed, so Jo was understandably concerned that what we were seeing could impact the quality of the crop and present a concern for her cattle.

When I drove out to Jo’s farm, I could see the plants had emerged unevenly throughout the barley field. I estimated about 75 per cent of the barley was in the milk stage; the rest of the crop was beginning to head out and emerge from the boot. I noted it was only those plants in the milk stage that exhibited the striping symptoms.

The uneven emergence wasn’t too surprising since it’d been a very dry growing season. I considered whether herbicide damage had some role to play here, since improperly applied herbicides can also cause uneven crop emergence, but quickly ruled that out. There were no spray patterns in the field to indicate this was a herbicide issue, and I couldn’t see anything else unusual about the plants apart from the striping.

I also wondered whether the striping could be caused by some kind of nutrient deficiency. Jo’s fertility program, which included manure and supplementary fertilizer, should have been sufficient for the crop, but just to be sure I collected some plant tissue samples and sent them off for testing.

On this farm, like many cattle operations, the barley was grown in a very short rotation with other cereals. I knew this meant disease could very well be the culprit, so I scanned the agronomic literature for symptoms that resembled what we were seeing in Jo’s crop.

Crop advisor’s solution: Barley striping caused by drought stress

I knew that the amount of manure and supplementary fertilizer Jo had applied to the field prior to planting should have been sufficient for the barley crop, but I thought it was worth checking to see if some kind of nutrient deficiency was causing the plant symptoms. There was no indication of that, however, when the tissue test results came back from the lab.

The barley on Jo’s farm was being grown in a very short rotation with other cereal crops, which increased the chances of disease appearing in the crop. Looking at the symptoms and studying a raft of agronomic literature for a match, I couldn’t find any disease that would have caused this kind of striping.

I was still looking for an answer, so I decided to turn to a senior agronomist within the company for help. After viewing some pictures of the affected plants, the agronomist informed me this symptomology was something he’d seen a few times before in certain barley lines during times of environmental stress, especially drought. Champion feed barley, apparently, was one of these varieties.

At my colleague’s suggestion, I talked to another agronomist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, who confirmed the diagnosis. When I gave the news to Jo, she was relieved to learn it wasn’t disease that had caused the striping and was interested to learn how drought conditions can have different effects on plants other than yield.

Because this was a phenotype issue caused by environmental stress, there wasn’t anything Jo could, or needed to, do about the symptoms in her barley crop. Come harvest time it didn’t matter, as fortunately for Jo — and her cattle — the striping had no impact whatsoever on either the yield or the quality of the crop.

Alynn Hagstrom, CCA, AAg, works for Richardson Pioneer Ltd. in Kindersley, Sask.

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