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How Deep is Too Deep?

Jochum Wiersma, Extension small grains specialist

This is my next installment in the 'how much is too much' series of blog posts. As of March 25th, the US Drought Monitor has all of Minnesota either rated as abnormally dry or in a moderate drought. That probably has you wonder how deep you can seed wheat, barley, and oats to get it into moisture.

Ideally, we like you to seed wheat, barley, and oats around 1.5 inches deep. The idea is that the seed should be placed deep enough to have access to adequate moisture yet shallow enough to emerge as quickly as possible. Seeds too close to the surface absorb moisture but are at risk of dying because roots cannot reach moisture quickly enough to sustain the germination and seedling growth. Deeper seeding can reduce stand density and plant vigor because of the inability of the coleoptile to reach the surface.

Given the dry conditions, the question arises how deep we dare to drill wheat, barley, and oats down to place the seed into moisture. There are several factors to consider; including the crop itself, the variety in question, and the soil type into which the seed will be placed. On average, oats are the most tolerant to placing deeper than the optimum 1.5 to 2 inches, whilst barley is the least tolerant.

Varieties of each of the three species differ genetically in the maximum length of their sub-crown internode and their coleoptile. The sub-crown internode moves the crown from the seed towards the surface and whether a sub-crown internode develops is a function of seeding depth. Seeding deeper than 1.5 inches generally will result in the development of a sub-crown internode. The maximum length of the sub-crown differs between cultivars and although not a lot of data is available you can assume that shorter statured varieties have shorter sub-crown internodes. Oats is different than either wheat or barley as the internode between the scutellum and coleoptile is also able to elongate, thereby allowing the oats to the most tolerant to seeding deep (up to approx. 4 inches)
The maximum coleoptile lengths differ between varieties within each of the species. The average plant height of varieties as reported in the variety trials correlates reasonably well with the length of the coleoptile and can be used as guidance to assess the risk of planting too deep. Table 1 summarizes the maximum coleoptile length measured in a growth chamber experiment using germination paper of a number of HRSW.

Finally, finer-textured soils create more resistance for emerging seedling than coarser textured soils, even in the absence of a crust. Therefore you have less leeway to place the seed deeper and into moisture in finer textured soils. The University of Nebraska suggests the difference is about a half inch.

Bottom line – barley should probably not be seeded much deeper than 2 inches, while many of the semi-dwarf wheat varieties probably should be seeded much deeper than 2.5 inches. As said before oats can probably be seeded as deep as 3 inches without jeopardizing the initial stand.

Table 1. Coleoptile length of a number of HRSW varieties as measured in a growth chamber in the winter of 2018.
Variety Coleoptile length
Bolles 2.7
Dyna-Gro Ambush 2.8
CP 3530 3.2
Lang-MN 4.1
LCS Rebel 3.2
LCS Trigger 3.3
Linkert 3.0
Prosper 3.0
Shelly 3.1
SY Ingmar 2.8
SY Valda 2.6
TCG-Spitfire 3.1
WB9479 2.6
WB9590 2.6
WB-Mayville 3.2
LSD(0.05) 0.2

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  1. I live in Mississippi and planted some barley yesterday. Am I better off trying to rake the barley in or let the rain cover up the seed. I am afraid if I use the tractor I will bury the seed to deep. My grandfather would attach a section of chain linked fence behind the disc to help smooth out the ground as he plowed. Does that method work for Secretariat barley planting? Its going to get below freezing about two days after the rain. Will the seed have enough time to germinate?

    1. According to Dr. Jochum Wiersma, Extension small grains specialist, a seeding depth of 1.5 inches is ideal. Two inches would be pushing it.

      He also states that if frost occurs during imbibition phase the seed will likely rot, but once the radicle appears the seedling will have a fighting chance to survive temperatures down to 28F.


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