High-Yield Wheat: No-Till Can Boost Yields

January 6, 2012 01:37 PM
High-Yield Wheat: No-Till Can Boost Yields

No-till improves soil quality and reduces erosion, which is why most farmers make the switch. Along the way, they’ve discovered that no-till wheat typically yields the same or higher than conventional tillage systems, especially in regions with lower rainfall, and requires fewer inputs,
especially labor, equipment and fuel. Whether you’ve been no-tilling wheat for 20 years or are still learning about the practice, here are some considerations to keep in mind with every crop.

Residue distribution. The first step toward successful long-term no-till wheat production is to evenly spread crop residue at harvest. Poor residue distribution impacts wheat seeding performance and long-term nutrition. If you see tiger stripes of residue across your fields, you will probably have problems with wheat stand uniformity. New and improved straw chopper designs help evenly spread residue, but it’s important to make the necessary adjustments to your combine during harvest and limit the width of your combine head to the maximum spread width.

Seeder selection. Numerous designs of no-till wheat seeding equipment are on the market, but disk drills/air seeders are by far the most popular for seeding wheat (and other crops) to a uniform depth, especially into heavy residue. Be sure to select a drill/air seeder that can plant narrow rows, preferably 71⁄2" or narrower. In all of the replicated row spacing research trials I’ve conducted, the narrowest row spacings yield the highest.

No Till Can Boost Yields  2
If moisture is available, try to position wheat 1" under the soil surface; deeper seeding depths might be required if soil moisture is held deeper.

Seeding strategies. If you don’t begin with a uniform wheat stand, it’s impossible to harvest maximum yields. 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. Monitor planting speed, which has a big effect on seeding depth consis-tency and residue cutting. In fact, research suggests that every 1 mph increase above 5 mph can reduce down pressure and residue cutting by approximately 10%.

Sharp blades are necessary to slice through the soil and residue. Seed boots direct the seed into the slot, and seed firming and closing wheels tuck the seed in place. When seeding into heavy residue and/or hard, dry soils, ballast is likely necessary to help provide the additional down force
required for cutting.

With some variation by region and farm size, air seeders are becoming popular because of their increased capacity. Most producers looking to maximize efficiency use an air seeder coupled to a trailed air cart, which can be filled with both seed and fertilizer. Trailed air carts don’t cost much more than an air seeder with a hopper on the frame, so the benefits can far outweigh the additional expense.

Nutrient management. Many producers across the Central and Northern Plains have been placing liquid or dry phosphorus (P) in the row with the seed for many years.

Research suggests that positioning P (and other nutrients that are safe for the seed) in the row with the seed can offer significant yield advantages compared with surface broadcast applications, especially on lower-testing soils. The biggest yield advantages are found in no-till systems, where the soils tend to be cooler early in the spring, making most nutrients, including P, less available.

Research suggests that the differences in availability between dry and liquid P products are minimal, so go with the cheapest product.

If you can band P with the seeding pass, you can save the spreading fees and help justify the expense of an air cart. A boost in fertilizer efficiency can also be captured by banding the nutrients in the row. Some of the most efficient growers are now pulling the same air cart they use to seed wheat behind their planter to position fertilizer alongside corn or soybean rows with the planter.

While most research suggests the nutrient requirements for no-till and conventionally tilled wheat are similar, the exception is nitrogen (N). While long-term N requirements even out over time, short-term N demands are generally 20 lb. to 30 lb. per acre higher in no-till systems compared with conventional tillage practices.

Monitor seeding performance. No-till drills and air seeders require adjustments based on residue levels, soil type, soil moisture, etc. Spending a few extra minutes in each field checking performance and making the appropriate adjustments will pay dividends. Make sure all rows are delivering seed to the bottom of the seed slot, seeding depth is uniform and residue is being cut. In addition, check the seeding depth across the seeding width, including those rows behind drill or tractor wheel tracks, where different depth settings and closing system adjustments are frequently required.


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