Thousands of acres of wheat and barley in northern Utah and southern Idaho could be damaged this spring by snowmold, a disease that occurs under snowpack areas covering winter small grains, Utah State University researchers say.

"The ideal condition for snowmold is when the snow falls before the ground freezes then lingers through February. It appears those conditions will be met this year," said Terry Tindall, USU Extension soils specialist.Even in those areas where the soil was frozen initially, the deep, insulating snow elevates the soil temperature above freezing and creates conditions conducive to the development of snowmold, Tindall said.

Tindall said removing snow is a practical and economically feasible way to reduce damage from snowmold. He and other researchers at USU have been working to develop practical methods of melting snow early. "Removing snow earlier changes the soil environment through exposure to colder temperatures, which reduces the ideal snowmold environment," he said.

Snow can be melted early by spreading a dark material, such as graphite, over the snow surface. Tindall said many farmers and fertilizer dealers have developed equipment that can be used to mix the graphite with a common fertilizer. This mixture is then sprayed on the snow.

Tindall said the dark particles intercept the sun's rays, which heat the graphite. The heat then radiates to surrounding ice crystals.

"The melting occurs only during daylight, which allows the water from the snow melt to soak into the soil and decreases water runoff that commonly occurs in the spring," he said.

The first two weeks of February is usually the best time to apply the dark materials, and this year is no exception, Tindall said. Even if no evidence of snowmold exists on the wheat fields toward the end of February, it would still benefit farmers to remove the snow with graphite.

Agricultural dealers with access to graphite and information on application techniques include Intermountain Farmers and Bear River Fertilizers in Garland. Additional information is available from county USU Extension offices.