Increase Your Wheat Profits

March 19, 2016 02:32 AM

Know what your wheat crop needs at every growth stage to stay on course for high yields

Managing a wheat crop is a season-long quest—planning before planting, monitoring while it’s growing and analyzing after harvest.


At a recent Wheat College event in Enid, Okla., Farm Journal high-yield wheat expert Phil Needham took center stage to address yield potential versus input costs, fertility management, and disease and insect pressures. 

With plants on display, Needham trained growers on how to do tiller counts per square yard or square foot. Nitrogen rates and timing are dependent on knowing tiller population to manage the wheat canopy and standability for the highest yields.

“Nitrogen is the throttle; the more nitrogen you put on early, the more it’s going to tiller,” Needham says. “If you have too many tillers, the worst thing you can do is apply nitrogen too early.” 

A dense crop with lots of tillers isn’t good. “If you have more than 600 to 700 heads per square yard at harvest, you’ll see yield decrease as a result of interplant competition,” he explains. “You’ll also see lodging problems.”

Manage the canopy with nitrogen to keep the head population between 500 and 600 per square yard.

Knowing the Feekes Growth Stages helps farmers keep their crops on course for high yields, Needham says. For example, at 4 or 5 leaf stage, the number of spikelets is determined, which means no yield can be expected from tillers after this stage. “Yield is created early and farmers need to be aware of that,” he says.

As of late February, a lot of wheat fields are ahead of the average growth stage with a lot of tillers due to warmer than usual fall and spring temperatures. The microclimate for foliar disease increases in denser canopies. 

“Scout often for septoria, powdery mildew and tan spot,” Needham says. “Apply a fungicide before diseases establish in the canopy.” 

During the day-long program, farmers had questions about no-till. For example, one farmer said he’s been no-tilling for four or five years but hasn’t seen much soil improvement. 

“Most research shows it’ll be five years or more before you see improvement,” Needham says. “The reason is because of the nitrogen penalty—some nitrogen is immobilized in residue and isn’t readily available for the crop. It takes moisture to raise a crop and cycle nutrients, but after about five years the nutrients start to be more available to the crop, so long-term success with no-till is more apparent.” 

Stick with it, he encourages. “No-till is the way to go for profitability, to get your fixed costs down and get more done per man or per tractor,” he says.

Even after attending the past five Wheat College events, Frank Hanny from Alliance, Neb., has learned something every year and been reminded of the importance of management. 

“How we apply things, and when we apply them, it all matters,” he says. “We can’t control Mother Nature, but knowing how to deal with what Mother Nature hands us certainly helps.”

We appreciate these sponsors who helped make the event possible: AgroLiquid, Verdesian and WestBred.  

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