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Challenges elsewhere have U of I plant pathologist optimistic about Idaho barley, wheat

By John O’Connell

University of Idaho

IDAHO FALLS – A University of Idaho plant pathologist specializing in cereals is advising Idaho wheat and barley farmers the current growing season could be one of their most profitable in years, making it especially important for them to pay attention to details and produce a quality crop.

Professor Juliet Marshall, Plant Sciences department head with U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said Idaho grain farmers will have to cope with short irrigation supplies, minimal soil moisture, prospects of a hot and dry summer and a cool spring delaying growth and spring crop emergence.

Nonetheless, Idaho farmers appear to be in good shape relative to producers in other major grain production areas throughout the U.S. and abroad, and tight supplies are pushing grain prices sky high.

“It’s going to be important for everybody to do their best to increase their production as long as it’s profitable,” Marshall said. “This will be a really good year for everybody to pay attention to their wheat production when it’s usually not considered a cash crop.”

The state’s fall wheat stands have weathered winter well, and pressure from stripe rust, which is an economically significant fungal pathogen of wheat and barley, appears to be low early this season.

Marshall urges farmers to carefully scout their fields and to promptly report any signs of stripe rust, but she doesn’t expect them to have many problems with the disease this season and advises against applying fungicide at herbicide timing to control it, even in susceptible varieties.

The likelihood of a hot summer could elevate grain growers’ risk of another disease of concern, Fusarium head blight. Fusarium head blight, however, thrives in moist conditions, and an anticipated dry summer could counterbalance the heat.

Many farmers who are concerned about having their irrigation supplies cut off early after a light winter are planting fewer acres of long-season crops, such as corn, and will opt for more acres of wheat and barley, which require a shorter irrigation season.

Marshall encourages growers to heavily irrigate their grain fields before the weather turns hot to deepen their soil moisture, providing reserves for wheat and barley roots to tap at the height of summer when they need water most.

Recent cool and moist weather throughout southern and eastern Idaho has delayed fall wheat growth and spring wheat and barley emergence.

However, the cool conditions have also triggered the winter crop to produce more tillers – lateral branches – which could ultimately lead to higher yields.

On May 3, Marshall hosted the university’s Ag Talk Tuesday program, which is a series of virtual sessions featuring agricultural experts from U of I and the industry.

It's hosted on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from May through August. Her guest, Keith Esplin, addressed the irrigation outlook for the season, which he said has improved due to April precipitation but still has farmers concerned.

Esplin is executive director of both a nonprofit involved in a private aquifer recharge program, called Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Recharge, and of Eastern Idaho Water Rights Coalition, which represents the water interests of eastern Idaho canals, groundwater districts, cities and businesses.

Esplin said a lack of mountain snowpack this winter has contributed to lower stream flows at the expense of storage. For example, American Falls Reservoir, which normally fills in the spring, is only at about 85% of capacity.

Just a month ago, he explained, irrigators drawing water from canals off of the Snake River feared they’d run out of water in June or July.

The outlook has improved thanks to a cool spring delaying the start of the irrigation season and prolonging runoff.

“Canals that are normally short in bad drought years are probably going to be short. Canals that normally make it will probably make it,” Esplin said.

Casey Chumrau, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission, agrees the state is still in the midst of a drought, but she adds Idaho farmers are well off compared to their peers elsewhere in the country.

Farmers in the Midwest have coped with continued dry weather and early heat. Elsewhere in the northern U.S., excess rain has delayed planting, to the point that many farmers there are concerned about meeting planting deadlines for crop insurance.

“That is not good for the outlook of wheat production,” Chumrau said. “A lot of those states are expecting a reduction in their output.”

Globally, Chumrau agrees the conflict with Russia in Ukraine and production challenges in key areas will reduce grain stocks, maintaining pressure on prices. Russia and Ukraine together are responsible for about 30% of global wheat exports, she said.

Extreme heat has affected the wheat crop in India. Severe flooding prevented planting of much of the usual fall wheat acreage in China, which accounts for a large percentage of global wheat stocks but doesn’t export its grain. Europe’s wheat crop is also expected to be down.

“It’s significant right now that the prices are high because our input costs are so high. At these prices, farmers will be able to cover their input costs,” Chumrau said.

(John O’Connell is an agricultural writer for University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.)