Cover Crops: Barley

Table of Contents

  1. Description: Family
  2. Growth Habits
  3. Control Options
  4. Sensitivity to Herbicides: Weed Control
  5. Benefits and Concerns
  6. Getting Started
  7. Related Links


Figure 1. Barley emerging

Figure 1. Barley emerging


  • Grass

Barley interseeded on much for wind protection has already been sprayed. Note the prostrate growth habit (low to the ground).

Growth Habits

Top Growth

  • Fast growing annual grass
  • Growth habit is less upright than oats
  • Tillers more than oats
  • Can grow 20 to 50 cm in the fall
  • Full term barley can reach 60 to 120 cm

Root System

  • Fibrous root system - not as aggressive as rye
  • Reaches 1.8 to 2.1 m in depth


  • Does not overwinter in cold winters as seedlings die at - 8°C
  • However, cold tolerance increases as the plant matures - winterkill is not always consistent in mild winters
  • Winter barley tolerance is inconsistent and may result in patchy stands

Site suitability

  • Grows best in cool dry conditions, less tolerant of wet soils than oats
  • Requires less soil moisture for optimum growth
  • Preferred soil pH is greater than 6.0
  • Barley has a very high salt tolerance

Control Options

  • Winterkill
  • Herbicides
  • Cultivation

Sensitivity to Herbicides: Weed Control

  • Usually not needed if solid stand established
  • There are many herbicides registered for use in barley but good weed control for a cover crop should not be expensive and may not be needed.
  • Establish a vigorous crop canopy to smother out weeds.

Benefits and Concerns

Nutrient Management

  • Does not absorb as much nitrogen as rye
  • When it winterkills, nitrogen is released during decomposition

Pest Management

  • Very competitive crop - more than oats
  • With aggressive tillering - will suppress weeds

Organic Matter

  • If planted early enough in the fall there will be sufficient biomass to increase soil organic levels
  • Research suggests that barley crops will form a more stable seedbed structure than alfalfa

Erosion Control

  • Cold tolerance - makes it a sound choice for early spring wind and water erosion control protection
  • Suitable for solid stand or for wind strips
  • As with oats - can be planted prior to or with precision planted cool season vegetable crops such as carrots, radish or onions for early wind erosion and wind damage protection as they emerge on sandy or muck soils
  • Barley is not as suitable as rye as wind strips in tomatoes - due to slower height growth

As Feed

  • Commonly grown as feed and bedding crop or cover crop

Getting Started


  • Performs best under cool moist conditions

Cost & Availability

  • Seed is easily available
  • Relatively inexpensive

Related Links

For more information:
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