Annapolis, MD – The Maryland Department of Agriculture today announced that farmers who planted small grain crops, such as wheat, rye or barley for harvest are allowed under Maryland’s nutrient management regulations to “top dress” these small grains with commercial fertilizer as early as February 15 as long as ground conditions are appropriate. The guidelines apply to all farmers growing small grains, including those enrolled in the commodity option of the department’s Cover Crop Program administered through the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS) Program. As a reminder, Maryland’s nutrient management regulations restrict manure applications until March 1.

“Researchers from the University of Maryland have determined that small grain crops have absorbed the nutrients in the soil and that additional nutrients are required to keep them growing,” said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder.  “The extremely warm weather we had beginning in December and continuing into January and early February warrants an earlier application based on the accumulation of Growing Degree Days. In addition, there was little residual nitrogen remaining in the soil following last year’s excellent corn crop.”

The warm temperatures, however, could be a double-edged sword for some small grain crops that may have experienced excessive growth. According to Dr. Robert Kratochvil, Associate Professor & Extension Specialist at the University of Maryland, farmers should survey their wheat and barley crops for winterkill caused by extreme temperature swings before applying additional fertilizer.

“They should first determine if the wheat or barley has started to joint,” said Kratochvil. “If it is not yet jointing, there likely was no damage caused by the extreme cold temperatures.”

According to Kratochvil, if the crop has started to joint, farmers should walk their fields to see if there are visible signs of cold damage before applying fertilizer.

Although the department’s Cover Crop contract agreement restricts nutrient applications to commodity cover crops before March 1, Maryland’s nutrient management regulations allow top dressing of small grains prior to March 1, under certain conditions and in accordance with University of Maryland nutrient recommendations.  The regulations allow farmers to apply half of the spring nitrogen application at green-up and half at plant growth stage Feekes 5-6.

For additional information on the department’s cover crop requirements, farmers should contact their local soil conservation district or the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program at 410-841-5864. Questions about winter nutrient applications should be directed to the Nutrient Management Program at 410-841-5959. Farmers with fields that are not suitable for harvest should contact their crop insurance agent for guidance.