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02:12AM Jul 26, 2014
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Small management changes can add up to yield bumps

Drought, wind, freeze and ill-timed rains: The Kansas and Southern Plains hard red winter wheat crop was slammed by the elements this year.

"Hard red winter wheat has had pretty much everything thrown at it but the kitchen sink," explains Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat Commission. 

Knowing that Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas crops were dismal, what does that mean looking ahead to the 2014/15 crop? Gilpin encourages farmers to be mindful of kernel size and moisture conservation. 

"Farmers need to be thinking about kernel size, as smaller seed wheat can affect planting population," he notes. "If drought conditions persist, minimizing water usage will be another important factor." 

Jason Ochs of Plum Creek Farms in Syracuse, Kan., grows wheat on 4,500 acres in an area that many would consider ground zero for adverse weather. He and neighboring farmers have seen paltry amounts of moisture in the past year—4" for some and only ½" for others. 

As a result, some farmers cut 50-bu. wheat while others were surprised to get 20 bu. per acre, Ochs says. Some wheat fields were declared a total loss after appraisals. 

As if a rain famine isn’t enough, tumbleweeds have taken a toll as the wind thrusts them through bone-dry fields in bowling ball fashion. 

"During the winter months, the wind was awful, pushing tumbleweeds around everywhere, leaving very little stubble on fields," Ochs says. "Chiseling helps fight some of the effects." 

When the wheat was growing, he could see where the combine left a strip of heavier residue. "Where there was more residue, the wheat was still alive," he notes. "When there was little to no residue, the wheat was pretty much nonexistent."

Uniform crop. While there’s no controlling Mother Nature, Farm Journal High-Yield Wheat columnist Phil Needham says small incremental changes in management practices can add up to greater yields at harvest, even in very dry conditions.

"Fairly small things like fine-tuning seeding and nitrogen rates can make significant contributions to crop success," he adds. 

Establishing a consistent number of wheat heads per square yard is one practice that Needham says wheat producers would benefit from implementing. He recommends farmers aim to establish between 450 and 600 heads of wheat per square yard. Farmers whose fields receive timely rains during the growing season need to shoot for the higher end of that spectrum, and those who receive little rainfall should aim for the lower end.

"When you establish a consistent, uniform number of heads of wheat per square yard, many of the other components that contribute to high wheat yields are automatically addressed at the same time," Needham says.

Even emergence is key. Needham recommends growers use large-sized, well-cleaned (ideally, certified) seed and plant at a depth of 1" to 1.5", if moisture is available.

Consistent planting depth helps achieve even emergence, and seeder calibration aids in seed placement. Research shows that spring wheat seeded at a consistent 1" depth will be 72% emerged within a three-day window. Planting at 3" results in 81% emergence in a seven-day window.

Uniform plant emergence sets the stage for timely fungicide applications. "Uniform head emergence is critical to get maximum performance from a fungicide applied at flowering to suppress later-season diseases, such as fusarium," Needham says.

To adjust head populations up or down, farmers should set nitrogen rates and timings based on plant health, plant counts, tiller numbers per plant and overall yield potential. 

Last fall, Ochs received 1" of rain in Kansas at just the right time to get a good stand. Without that good stand, his wheat yields this year would have been even worse. Hopefully, this fall the rain will continue to come at just the right time.