PORT ROYAL, VA – Stephen Ellis walked through a field of barley, some of it green, some of it yellow — almost none of it heading like it should have been.
“Basically we’re killing this crop and going into early beans,” he said. “There’s not going to be enough to run a combine through.”
It was late April, and that afternoon Ellis would spray the crop, with the goal of getting in early beans by the end of the month. Earlier in the month, cold weather had sealed the fate of these 65 acres of barley. Ellis estimates freeze damage to the stand to be over 80 percent.
Together with his brother and father, Ellis grows no-till corn, beans, wheat, and barley in eastern Virginia. This spot in Caroline County is the northernmost field he cultivates, but it was also the field of barley he planted latest, on Oct. 2. “We have barley 10 miles down the road where the damage is less than 10 percent,” he said.
When warm weather in the early part of the season lead to good growth, Ellis held back top-dressing fertilizer to minimize the risk of cold damage to his crop. “We didn’t want it to push too soon.”
According to Ben Rowe, Managing Director of the Virginia Grain Producers Association, barley is susceptible to freeze damage once it has reached stage 6, when the nodes first become detectable.
Ellis’s barley field had reached that stage by early April.
On Tuesday, April 5, the temperature was below freezing at midnight and later reached the low 20s. “When you see a really long sustained freeze period like that,” Rowe said, “that’s when you see damage.”
Knowing that, Ellis went to check his field a few days after the event, remembering what the field had been like a week before: a stand of barley, “black-green and beautiful.” What Ellis first saw was encouraging: some emerged seed heads. But as he walked into the field – particularly as he got into its middle, lower portion – his evaluation changed. There was no heading, and when he pulled the plants apart, the nodes were yellow, killed.
“It became a cover crop,” he said. “But an expensive cover crop.”
Ellis considered making straw from the barley, but because the field has fairly sandy soil, he decided to kill the stand and let the residue contribute to organic matter.
Ellis used to grow Thoroughbred barley, but for the past two years has grown exclusively Atlantic barley. When prices were higher, he and his father and brother would grow as much as 800 acres of barley. This year, he said, “It would have been 250 acres, before this.”
So why did this field of Ellis’s barley see so much more damage than his other fields? “Its a little further north,” he said, “and a lot more wide-open.”
According to Rowe, the freeze event of early April also impacted grain growers in other parts of Virginia, including in Sussex and Isle of Wight counties. Their damage may not be as extreme as Ellis’s, however – many of them will likely get some kind of harvest, if reduced.
That’s happened to Ellis before; where cold damage reduced yields to about 60 or 70 bushels per acre, lower than normal but still enough to justify harvesting.
Five years ago, cold weather caused him to lose half of his wheat crop. And this year, there’s 35 acres of wheat next to the killed 65 acres of barley, which may have a reduced yield.
“I haven’t been able to find any damage,” Ellis said. “We’ll see when it heads out.”
Overall, Ellis isn’t losing any sleep over the loss. “We don’t get freezes in April all that often,” he said. “It’s a one in 20 year thing.
“It’s farming – you never know.”