Barley Covered Smut Control: A Comprehensive Guide to Managing a Persistent Crop Disease

Barley covered smut, caused by the fungus Ustilago hordei, is a significant disease affecting barley crops worldwide. This disease can lead to substantial yield losses and reduced grain quality, making it a major concern for farmers and the agricultural industry. In this blog post, we will delve into the details of barley covered smut, its symptoms, lifecycle, and the various strategies available to manage and prevent this disease.


Barley covered smut is a fungal disease that primarily affects the barley plant, one of the world’s most important cereal crops. The disease is named for the smutted or covered appearance of the infected kernels, which are filled with dark, powdery spores.


The symptoms of barley covered smut are most evident during the flowering and grain-filling stages. Key signs include:

  • Smutted Kernels: Infected kernels are replaced by masses of dark brown to black spores, giving a “covered” appearance.
  • Distorted Heads: The heads of infected plants may become distorted or twisted.
  • Reduced Yield: Infected plants often produce fewer and smaller kernels, leading to reduced yield.

Lifecycle and Transmission

The lifecycle of Ustilago hordei is complex and involves several stages:

  1. Spore Germination: The spores overwinter in the soil or on infected plant debris and germinate in the spring.
  2. Infection: The germinated spores infect the young barley plants, often through the roots.
  3. Systemic Growth: The fungus grows systemically within the plant, eventually reaching the developing kernels.
  4. Sporulation: Infected kernels are replaced by spore masses, which are released when the grain is harvested or threshed.

The disease can be transmitted through infected seeds, soil, or plant debris, making control a multifaceted challenge.

Management and Control

Controlling barley covered smut requires an integrated approach that combines cultural, mechanical, and chemical strategies:

1. Cultural Practices

a. Seed Selection

Using certified, disease-free seeds is the first line of defense against barley covered smut.

b. Crop Rotation

Rotating barley with non-host crops can reduce the soil inoculum levels of the fungus.

2. Mechanical Control

a. Tillage

Proper tillage can bury infected plant debris, reducing the source of inoculum for future crops.

3. Chemical Control

a. Seed Treatment

Treating seeds with fungicides like carboxin or tebuconazole can protect against early infection.

4. Resistant Varieties

a. Planting Resistant Cultivars

Breeding programs have developed barley varieties with resistance to covered smut. Selecting these varieties can be an effective long-term strategy.


Preventive measures are crucial for managing barley covered smut:

  • Regular Monitoring: Regular inspection of fields for signs of infection can lead to early detection and intervention.
  • Hygiene Practices: Cleaning tools, equipment, and storage facilities can prevent cross-contamination between healthy and infected seeds.


Barley covered smut is a serious disease that requires a comprehensive and proactive approach to management. By understanding the biology of the fungus and implementing a combination of cultural, mechanical, and chemical strategies, farmers can successfully control this disease.

The lessons learned from managing barley covered smut also highlight the broader challenges of managing crop diseases in a globalized agricultural system. Collaboration between researchers, extension agents, seed companies, and farmers will continue to be essential in developing new resistant varieties, improved fungicides, and sustainable farming practices.

Whether you’re a small-scale barley grower or part of a large agricultural operation, being aware of barley covered smut and taking proactive measures can help ensure a healthy and productive crop. The fight against this disease exemplifies the ongoing challenge of feeding a growing world population while maintaining the health of our agricultural ecosystems.