Chasing a Wheat Bin Buster

October 22, 2016 02:08 AM
 
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Seeding rate and fungicide recipe produces yield winner

In early spring, when Alec Horton stood in the silt loam of his western Kansas wheat fields and saw substantial tillers and muscled heads filling in, he knew the yield could be special. No backing off from fungicides or insecticides—it was time to push and manage for big yields with Joe, a hard white winter wheat variety from the Kansas Wheat Alliance.

Farming success has many fathers, and Horton begins every wheat crop aiming for 100 bu. per acre dryland yield through seed treatments, lower seeding rates, tiller promotion, vegetative growth reduction and moisture conservation. Even so, he didn’t foresee a 121.48-bu. bin buster when he planted Joe in the fall of 2015.

Wheat fields looked increasingly strong in May 2016, as Horton got paperwork ready for the Kansas Wheat Yield Contest. In truth, Horton’s signature on the application form was representative of a Horton Seed Services team effort; the family’s certified seed wheat business in Leoti, Kan., includes Horton’s father, Ken, and brothers, Rick and Matt. Horton, 24, insists he’s just a cog in the machine: “My name was on the entry sheet, but my entire family hit 121 bu.”

The Hortons follow a wheat, grain sorghum and fallow rotation on ground with 16" to 22" of top soil. The profile equates to 2" of moisture per foot of soil, and in fall of 2015, the profile was relatively packed with moisture going into wheat planting. On Sept. 25, topsoil was beginning to bake, but 3.5" down, moisture was waiting as Horton planted Joe on fallow acreage, starting clean of volunteer wheat to avoid disease and pest infestations. 

“Joe’s yield data from the past three years is phenomenal,” he says. “We liked its stripe rust package and were really impressed by its wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) resistance.”

Every seed Horton plants is treated with Vibrance Extreme fungicide and Revize Imida St insecticide. With most wheat varieties, Horton uses a planting rate of 500,000 to 650,000 seeds per acre. With Joe, Horton dropped down to 375,000 seeds per acre (28 lb. per acre), aiming to blow up the new variety and push for more total bushels. With the lower seeding rate, the 10"-row stand initially appeared thin but looked robust heading into winter.

“As long as a stand looks good, we leave it alone until we topdress nitrogen in February and run an herbicide application to hit weeds coming out of dormancy,” Horton says. “Resistant kochia and pigweed are a problem, but our rotation helps with weed control.”

The Hortons apply 5 tons of conditioned manure every three years. The manure is spread after wheat and incorporated by rain into the ground to provide nutrients for grain sorghum and the succeeding wheat crop in the three-year cycle. Soil samples showed Joe needed 35 lb. to 40 lb. of additional liquid nitrogen to align with the 100-bu. target, but Horton added 90 lb. in February to promote tiller growth and ensure the crop wouldn’t be hungry. 

“The Hortons have an excellent foundation on their fertility program,” says A.J. Foster, agronomist and crops and soil specialist with Kansas State University Extension. “They start with good fertility and pay attention to detail.”

“We do load up with our fertility program,” Rick adds. “Manure and extra nitrogen are so important. Also, fungicides are critical, particularly when head size is determined.”

Stands of Joe were treated with the Horton’s typical double fungicide spring application: three weeks before jointing and after the flag leaf was fully exposed. The management recipe included Priaxor, Monsoon and Azoxy Star fungicides; Ravage insecticide; and Rave herbicide.

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Using separate insecticide and fungicide products allow the Horton family to meet specific agronomic needs.

Typically, Horton grows red wheat, and prior to Joe, grew Antero, a white variety from Colorado State University. “Antero has done really well for us in the past,” Horton says. “The only negative was a lack of good WSMV resistance and it affected yield.”

A base yield target for Horton Seed Services is 70 bu. per acre. However, in 2016, yields climbed to more than 90 bu. per acre across the farm, with several varieties faring well. LCS Pistol, TAM 112 and WB-Grainfield were excellent, he adds. 

“LCS Pistol yielded 114.01 bu. per acre and looked great from the start. TAM 112 has strong mosaic resistance and is tough and dependable, especially in drought years. WB-Grainfield does a remarkable job of making and filling big heads,” he says.

In late June, an Extension agent measured off plots, hopped in a combine with Rick and headed into a field of Joe. When the yield monitor bounced to 122 bu. and 123 bu., suspicions of an exceptional crop were justified. “It was so awesome. There’s so much great wheat on farms around us and we didn’t expect to win, but we were really excited,” Horton says. 

Beyond the smoking 121.48-bu. win, the highest total in contest history, the yield confirmed the management efforts of Horton Seed Services. “We’re on the right track with the way we’re thinking about how to push varieties and get the most out of every wheat crop,” Horton says. 

What lessons will Horton carry into next season? “We might start applying extra nitrogen topdress to promote tiller growth in thin stands when we think we’ve got moisture to sustain tillers. We’ll also continue applying fungicides three weeks prior to jointing and flag leaf,” he says. 

Horton Seed Services has performed a three-year seeding rate study, testing varieties to see how population affects yield. The results suggest sowing 500,000 to 650,000 seeds per acre (equal to 40 lb. to 45 lb. per acre), instead of 800,000 seeds per acre (average of 60 lb.), for strong stand establishment, Horton says. 

A lower seeding rate soaks up less moisture for vegetative growth and leaves more moisture for grain fill. “If we drop our seeding rates, promote tiller growth and save moisture, we’ve found we can still yield just as much, if not more,” he says, “because when we get really dry we can sluff off tillers easy without a big moisture pull.” 

Horton is looking for a final head count specific to each variety. Lower seeding rates help him do that because tillers are easier to lose than primary heads when conditions get dry.

Planting based on a seeds per acre approach helps Horton increase consistency and precision planting of wheat from year to year. 

“Everything costs in today’s world, and with low commodity prices if you could cut your seed expense and conserve moisture during dry periods to let the crop hang on until a rain comes, then it’s definitely something to look into,” Horton says.

“This was a year that verified we’re on the right road,” Rick notes. “All we do is geared toward raising wheat in years with little rain. The stars have to line up for super yields.”

“We were honored to win the contest, but knowing your team efforts aren’t wasted is the most satisfying thing of all,” Horton adds. 

 

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