Early management decisions set the stage for yield
Larry the Cable Guy’s trademark phrase of git-r-done may be a good mindset for a lot of the simpler tasks wheat growers perform day-to-day around the farm, but don’t expect it to work well in your wheat crop. Instead, a take-it-slow, do-it-right strategy to planting and growing wheat provides the best results at harvest, according to Phil Needham, internationally acclaimed wheat expert. He says growers can use each step of the production process from start to finish to improve wheat-yield potential.
Needham and Missy Bauer, Farm Journal associate field agronomist, outlined their best management practices for growing wheat for 130 farmers from seven states during the 2012 Kansas Wheat College in Manhattan earlier this winter.
Here are five of Needham and Bauer’s top recommendations for wheat production.
1. Select high-yielding varieties. That’s not rocket science advice, but too many farmers still plant seed they saved from a previous season, and many do not treat it with a seed treatment fungicide. Instead, use graded, certified wheat varieties that offer high yield potential within your area.
"The few extra dollars you invest in quality, fungicide treated certified seed quickly pays-off because you will often harvest five to 7 bushels more per acre on average," Needham says.
Needham adds that he usually encourages farmers to select short, stiff straw wheat varieties for better standability.
"This allows you to push nitrogen rates higher and take advantage of your genetic yield potential without the risk of lodging," he says.
2. Plant for consistent depth and uniformity. The planting results you achieve are influenced by equipment use. A no-till drill or air seeder that can plant narrow rows, preferably 7.5" rows or narrower, is your best bet in wheat.
"In all of the replicated row spacing research trials I’ve conducted, the narrowest row spacings always yield the highest," Needham reports.
Make equipment adjustments in the field as you plant based on factors such as residue levels, soil types and moisture.
When seeding, pay particular attention to seed depth and population.
"Make sure all seeds fall to the base of the seed slot, ideally pressed into place with a firming wheel for uniform moisture access and germination," Bauer says.
If good moisture is available, farmers should drill winter wheat at a depth of about 1."
3. Plant slowly. Bauer says research suggests that every 1 mph increase above 5 mph can reduce down pressure and residue cutting by approximately 10%.
4. Calculate plant populations shortly after emergence. "Before you can make wheat management decisions, you need to see how consistent your stands are and how they compare to recommendations in your specific region," Needham says.
To do this, count the number of plants per yard of row across different areas of your fields. Next, convert the number of plants per yard of row into plants per square yard by multiplying the average plant population per yard by the value of 36 divided by your row spacing in inches.
The equation would look like this:
45 wheat plants x 6 (36 divided by 6" spacing) equals 270 plants per square yard
Needham says that depending on the region’s rainfall and planting date, he likes to see about 200 to 300 emerged plants per square yard. The lower end of this range fits early planting dates with the higher end for late seeding.
Needham adds that most research indicates that maximum wheat yields come from around 600 good heads per square yard.
"The 600 seeds per square yard was one of the top five things I learned at Wheat College," reports Mike Craig, Baldwin City, Kan.
5. Nitrogen use can be one of your best investments. In most production scenarios, Needham recommends that growers apply nitrogen timely and accurately. Liquid nitrogen works well for the second (in-crop) post application as most farmers have a high capacity sprayer that can deliver the N accurately. Be sure to use stream bars to avoid leaf scorch and yield losses associated with flat-fan or flood jet nozzles.
He says split-applied nitrogen is used by most of his clients who target yields of 100 bu. per acre and higher.
"Split applications minimize risk and push yields higher by allowing the grower to more accurately determine the total nitrogen requirement later in the season," he says.
When split applying spring nitrogen to winter wheat, the first application should be timed at or slightly prior to the green-up stage. Base your application rates on tiller densities and plant health. Apply higher rates to later planted, thinner fields and lower rates to early emerging, over-tillered fields. Then, apply the balance of spring nitrogen at about jointing.
In some situations, Needham says wheat producers will apply between 20 lb. and 30 lb. per acre of late-season nitrogen, just prior to flag leaf emergence if yield potential seems higher than the yield potential they initially fertilized for.
"While it means another pass, growers will have added another 5 bu. to 10 bu. per acre," he says. "With current prices, that’s worth the trip."