x Elyhordeum Barley Mansf. ex Zizin & Petrowa

Pre-harvest field of barley

Barley is an annual cereal, a cool-season grass species used for both grain and forage including pasture, hay, silage, and after-grain-harvest straw. It is also used as a cover crop to reduce soil erosion, as a green manure crop, or planted to reclaim saline soils. Barley is more winter hardy than oat, but more prone to winter-kill than wheat or rye. It is used in semiarid areas due to salt and drought tolerance. In humid areas, there are many disease problems. Like other small grain crops, barley can be grazed by livestock, preferably before seedheads are produced. Barley can be planted earlier than wheat, to provide early-season grazing. It uses water more efficiently than other small grains, making it a valuable annual forage during drought. Barley makes good quality silage and hay but tonnage is typically lower than for oats or triticale. Silage yields are generally 2.5 ton/acre of dry matter (7 tons of 65% moisture silage).

Soil Improvement (Green manure)

Species Selection Characteristics

Annual Precipitation (inches): 
12 to 16
16 to 20
20 to 24
24 to 28
28 to 32
32 to 36
36 to 40
40 to 50
50 to 60
60 to 70
Plant Hardiness Zones (cold tolerance): 
Heat Zone (July Mean Max Temperature): 
22 to 26 °F
26 to 30 °F
30 to 34 °F
Soil pH Tolerance: 
Strongly acid, 5.1–7.3
Moderately acid, 5.6–7.3
Moderately acid to moderately alkaline, 5.6–8.4
Soil Drainage Tolerance: 
moderately well drained
well drained
Flooding Tolerance: 
3-6 days
Soil Salinity Tolerance: 
Tolerant, 6–10 dS/m

Identification Characteristics

Growth Season: 

Growth Habit and Stand Life

Barley is an annual grass with a bunch-type habit. 

Barley cultivars are classified as winter, spring, or facultative. When choosing a cultivar, determine which cultivars have a survival potential that fits into your cropping system. Winter-type barley cultivars must be planted in the fall to receive sufficient cold units to flower the following spring, otherwise it will remain in a vegetative state. Spring barley does not require chilling, but lacks winter hardiness, so those cultivars are best planted in the spring in cold-winter regions. Facultative barley is winter hardy and does not require chilling; it can be planted in the fall or spring. 

Winter Hardiness

Barley winter hardiness is determined by genetics, the duration of the low temperature cold-hardening induction period, presence or absence of snow cover, frequency of freeze/thaw cycling, and management. Before including fall-planted barley in your crop rotation, consult with your local extension specialist for cultivar recommendations. Also, determine whether crop insurance is available for fall-planted barley in your region. Plant at an optimum date, rate, and depth, and use as deep a furrow as possible to reduce wind exposure and to trap snow. Stubble from the previous crop will help to trap snow. Typically, fall-planted barley will yield 25% more grain than spring-planted barley at the same location in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades, and in the Columbia and Snake River Basins. In northern-tier states, ongoing research indicates that fall-planted barley may be suitable for areas east of the Rockies, including Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. In the upper Midwest, fall planted barley does well in areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin and is more generally adapted eastward to New England. Fall-planted barley does well along the Eastern Seaboard into the Carolinas and westward across the Great Plains. In the Southwest and California, at lower elevations, spring barleys can be planted in the fall and winter barleys will generally receive sufficient chilling.

Fertility Needs

Crops grazed or harvested for hay or silage need a high level of mineral nutrition. Nitrogen is important for protein and dry matter yield. Having adequate phosphorus is important for good establishment and even seasonal growth.  Potassium is also important for forage crops as there is large removal of K when the whole plant is removed in comparison to just removing the grain. To ensure good production, perform a soil test and obtain expert recommendations for nutrient needs. Top dressing with nitrogen after cutting or grazing will increase quality and quantity of regrowth. 

Life Cycle: 
Summer annual
Winter annual

Climate and Soil Suitability Zones

Climate Tolerances: 

Spring barley has excellent cold tolerance.  Spring types are grown at a higher altitude than any other cereal crop.  Some are grown within the Arctic Circle.

Spring barley has excellent cold tolerance. Spring types are grown at a higher altitude than any other cereal crop.  Some are grown within the Arctic Circle.
Barley requires a mild winter climate and grows better in dry, cool climates than in hot, moist areas. It is well adapted to high altitudes with cold, short seasons. The species possesses moderate resistance to cold, but winter barley is less winter hardy than winter wheat, triticale or cereal rye.

Temperature: A temperature of 17 °F (-8 °C) or lower is required to kill seedlings of barley. Barley is also susceptible to damage by hot, dry weather that occurs during reproduction. Overall, barley grows best under cool, dry conditions, but can withstand hot, dry or cold and wet weather.

Barley can be used as a winter annual in Plant Hardiness Zone 8 and warmer. Seedlings survive above 17 °F (-8.3 ̊C). It possesses moderate resistance to cold, but winter barley is less winter hardy than winter wheat, triticale or cereal rye. It grows best under cool, dry conditions, but can withstand hot, dry or cold and wet weather. For grain production, it is susceptible to damage if hot, dry weather that occurs during seed set. For forage, this is not an issue. Barley grows best under cool, dry conditions, but can withstand hot, dry or cold and wet weather.Precipitation: Suitable annual precipitation ranges from 15 to 70 inches (380-1780 mm).

Soil Tolerances: 

pH: Barley is tolerant of strongly acid to moderately alkaline soils (5.1-8.4).

Aluminum: It is somewhat tolerant of Aluminum (persisted at 1–2 ppm Al3+ and pH 4.0).

Soil drainage: It is well-suited to well-drained and moderately well-drained soils.

It tolerates only brief flooding (3-6 days).

Salinity: Barley has a higher salinity tolerance than other cereals, 6-12 dS/m (millimhos/cm).

Quantitative Tolerances: 

Global and USA Suitability

Barley is grown over a broader environmental range than any other cereal. It does poorly in hot, humid climates. Barley has excellent drought tolerance. It is known for drought tolerance in the western USA & Canada. It is grown in arid climates of the Sahara Desert. Barley has good Heat Tolerance, but the heat must be dry heat. Barley does not do well in humid areas where there are many disease problems. Overall, barley is a crop that is best adapted to cooler, drier areas. 

Few barley cultivars are adapted coast to coast; geographic suitability will vary among cultivars. It is not persistent in the wild, but beardless barley occasionally occurs in grain fields and along roads from Connecticut to New Jersey, in South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Four Suitability Zones

Tolerance values were divided into four suitability zones, using an arbitrary classification system based on 25% relative yield (RY): 75-100% RY = well-suited; 50-75% RY = moderately-suited; 25-50% RY = marginally-suited; 0-25% RY = not suited.

Climate and Soil Factors Used for Mapping Suitability Zones for Barley


Suitability Maps

Suitability Maps

GIS-based suitability zones were divided into four suitability zones, based on their climatic and soil tolerances. An arbitrary classification system based on 25% differences in relative yield (RY) was used:

Classification Relative Yield (RY) %
Unsuited 0-25
Marginally unsuited 26-50
Marginally suited 51-74
Well suited 75-100

Nine maps were created for winter barley, one for each of 3 climate factors and one for each of the soil factors, one combined climate factors map, one combine soil factors map, and a map for all of the factors combined.  This allows for each factor to be examined and addressed to improve suitability through management. Small images of maps are provided below, with larger maps linked by clicking.

Minimum Temperature

pH Climate and Soil
Maximum Temperature Drainage All Soil



Salinity All Climate

All Factors Combined


Yield Potential and Production Profile

US Production Areas

A general suitability map was provided in the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education publication “Managing Cover Crops Profitably” (https://www.sare.org/publications/managing-cover-crops-profitably/nonlegume-cover-crops/barley/). It shows that barley is suitable to almost all parts of the US, except for far southern regions of CA, AZ, TX, and FL. However, this map is not able to distinguish conditions of sensitivity or potential yield.


Major and minor US Barley production areas were graphed by the USDA Agricultural Weather Assessments unit (http://ctgpublishing.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/united-states-top-barley-producing-areas-map.jpg). Data were obtained from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://www.naas.usda.gov).

Production Profile

Barley is a cool-season grass with optimum growth rates between 64 and 68 ̊F (18-20 ̊C).

Spring barley can be planted early into cool soils [~40 ̊F (4.4 ̊C)] and can be harvested for forage in 58-65 days. The sigmoidal growth curve of plant height vs days after planting of spring barley is illustrated in a Kansas State University publication sourced from this document:  http://courses.missouristate.edu/WestonWalker/AGA375_Forages/Forage%20Mgmt/References/2Forages/4Annual/2Cool

Winter barley is planted in late summer or early autumn, growing sufficiently for light grazing before growth stops due to low temperatures. Spring harvest at the soft-dough stage is early enough to allow a double-cropping system with corn, sorghum, or other warm-season annual grasses.

Irrigation Requirements

Adequate soil moisture during germination and early seedling growth is important for cool-season annuals planted for forage. When managed as a grazing or hay crop, emphasis should be focused on meeting the plant’s water needs during rapid growth stages (see Figure 7 of this web link: https://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/html/g2012/build/g2012.htm).

Even moderate water stress during vegetative stages is likely to reduce yield, although it may lead to improved forage quality.

Note: Irrigation needs during August and early September can be relatively high, reducing water-use efficiency, especially when compared to spring-planted systems.


There are many barley cultivars. The National Seed Storage Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fort Collins, Colorado, maintains seed for 25,284 landraces, cultivars, and wild species of barley.  Twenty-four cultivars are listed by the Southern Seedsman's Association. Few cultivars are adapted coast to coast. The choice should be based on climatic suitability. The spring or North Africa type of barley is used in California. Cultivated varieties of barley include 6-rowed and 2-rowed types. In two-row types, all kernels are symmetrical, but in 6-row types, 2/3 are twisted, i.e., those from the lateral rows of the spike. The lateral kernels are smaller and weigh 13-20% less. Kernel weight in barley ranges from 5 to 80 mg. Six-row varieties of barley do not necessarily produce low numbers of tillers, but tiller mortality is high when they produce many. Some barley varieties are susceptible to lodging at high sowing densities. 

Cultivar Types

2-Rowed and 6-Rowed Types

There are two groups of cultivated varieties of barley, 2-rowed and 6-rowed types. These groups refer to the differences in the arrangement of the seedheads in the spike. When viewing a head of six-rowed barley from above, there are six rows of kernels, three on each side of the rachis (seedhead stem). In two-rowed barley, only the middle spikelet develops a kernel, and the other two spikelets are sterile. When viewed from above, the two-rowed type appears to have only two kernels. Kernel weight in barley ranges from 5 to 80 mg.

Malting and Feed Types

Two types of barley seed stock are commonly available: malting and feed varieties. Malting cultivars must meet rigorous standards for germination quality, kernel size and weight, kernel plumpness, and moisture content. Cultivars that do not meet malting industry standards are referred to as feed cultivars. Almost all malting cultivars are spring, two-rowed barleys.

Forage Types

Most barley inflorescences (heads or spikes) are notable for the presence of long awns. The long and rough awns of barley can be irritating to livestock, particularly as the crop ripens. For forage, choose beardless types. They are less irritating and more palatable. Many “forage barleys” are hooded in which the awn is genetically re-directed to form a second inverted floret. Two other inflorescence types are awnletted types and awnless types; awnletted types have a short awn whereas the awn is completely absent in awnless types.


Management Level Required

Suitable Management Level: 

Quality and Antiquality Factors

Quality Factors: 

Barley forage is a good livestock feed, although the rate of gain for fattening cattle is slightly less than that of corn silage. Forage yield and feeding value of the harvested crop change as the plant matures. For highest quality forage, harvest in the boot stage for silage or hay. For higher yields, harvest in the milk or dough stage. When harvested for hay, typical quality measurements are 9% crude protein, 54% neutral detergent fiber, and 32% acid detergent fiber.

Anti-quality Factors: 

Nitrate poisoning, grass tetany, and bloat are antiquality issues of concern.  See descriptions provided in the “Growing Cereals Grains for Forage” document.  

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David B. Hannaway, Christina Larson, and Daniel Myers, Oregon State University