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High-Yield Wheat

March 23, 2013
By: Phil Needham, Farm Journal Columnist
Wheat Seeds
Choose seed varieties that are uniformly treated with a fungicide to protect against early season root, shoot and leaf diseases.  

Eliminate the Weak Links

Phil Needham small

Phil Needham

writes from Calhoun, Ky.

Boosting yields doesn’t necessarily require a significant financial investment. More often than not, the difference lies in addressing the weak links in the system.

For example, some producers might be dealing with poor stand uniformity, nitrogen distribution and timing—none of which usually requires much (if any) money to remedy. Sometimes, though, weak links aren’t as obvious. In this case, it might help to hire an agronomist who can compare your fields and yields to surrounding operations and help isolate and eliminate the weak links holding back yields.

The following are six of the most common weak links that exist in wheat fields. 

Soil and tissue testing. The farmers I work with who achieve the highest and most consistent yields are the ones who understand fertility levels field by field and how those levels have changed over time.

If possible, I split larger fields into smaller segments, preferably 20 acres or less, for more accurate results. Sampling by soil type, topography or yield zone is an even better strategy, especially when using smaller management zones to pinpoint specific soil fertility problems and opportunities for variable-rate fertilizer application. Tissue tests are another good tool, which help ground-truth soil tests and better identify transient nutrient deficiencies. I use tissue test results to compare healthier regions of a field to areas with lower standards of plant health and find the differences between the two are more important than the actual values.

Fertility management. Regardless of whether wheat prices are low or high, you can’t allow fertility to limit yields. Sound and balanced fertility are both important for high yields; so once sound soil test results are gathered, carefully determine fertility requirements per field or region. We know how much of each nutrient is required per bushel of yield, so be realistic with yield goals and fertilizer applications.

While soil tests represent most major nutrients well, they aren’t necessarily accurate with most micronutrients. That’s where tissue tests help streamline your nutrient application decisions, especially in regard to micronutrients such as zinc.

Once growers make the transition from conventional or minimum till to no-till, they find that certain nutrients that were not historically limiting might become so. These nutrients often include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and sulphur (S). No-till is encouraged to boost soil quality and equipment efficiency, plus reduce costs per acre, but few soil tests make fertility adjustments for the cooler soils within a no-till system. Therefore, higher nutrient levels are often required in the first three to five years of a no-till system.

Most of my clients apply a small amount of N at seeding, along with P in the row to boost early plant uptake, which is important when no-tilling into low fertility fields or planting later in the season into cool soils.

Seed quality. When selecting genetics for your fields, carefully compare what each variety brings to the table. First look for varieties with good straw strength that can stand up with higher N rates.

Next look for varieties that consistently yield within the top 10% to 20%. It’s best to spread risk by selecting a range of varieties with different maturities and good disease resistance. Be sure all seeds are uniformly treated with a fungicide; any seeds without treatment will be unprotected from early season root, shoot and leaf diseases. Insecticide seed treatments are gaining in popularity too, especially in areas that see early season aphid or wireworm pressure on a regular basis.

Stand uniformity. Like most projects, a successful finish begins with a solid foundation. However, some growers stumble at the starting gate by not establishing a uniform wheat stand that is able to capture all available sunlight, moisture and nutrients.

The only way that we can determine the standard of emergence uniformity for each field is to conduct plant counts per yard of row when plants have fully emerged and again later in the growing season to determine if any plants were lost. Depending on the production region and planting date, we generally look for 200 to 300 emerged wheat plants per square yard (22 to 33 per square foot).

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2013



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