Wheat Offers Farmers a Fresh Start This Fall

August 20, 2012 08:43 AM
Wheat Offers Farmers a Fresh Start This Fall

A winter wheat crop could help make up for poor corn and soybean yields. Make sure your wheat gets off to a good start.

Winter wheat is more important to Frank Brittingham this year than ever before. Like many other southwest Indiana farmers, Brittingham watched his corn and soybean crops burn up in the summer heat. This fall, he hopes for better weather and a fresh start with his 500-acre wheat crop.

"I’ll no-till the wheat in early October," says Brittingham, who farms near Francisco, Ind. "It should be easy planting as there won’t be much residue from cornstalks."

In the process, Brittingham hopes to take advantage of the high levels of nutrients he believes the stressed corn and soybean crops were unable to use and left behind.

Nutrient availability is an important consideration for farmers planning to grow winter wheat, contends Phil Needham, Farm Journal high-yield wheat expert based in Calhoun, Ky.

"With poor corn and soybean crops in many areas, there’s a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium left in fields, so nutrient requirements for wheat may not be as great as they are in most years," he explains. "I’m most concerned about nitrogen, as an overabundance can lead to standability problems closer to harvest."

For that reason, Needham recommends that farmers plant shorter, stiffer strawed varieties this fall and take a cautious approach with their nitrogen program next spring.

Despite the expected abundance of nutrients, Needham still recommends that farmers band starter phosphate in the row in fall, especially if no-tilling wheat into corn. He recommends either MAP 11-52-0 or  DAP 18-46-0, based solely on soil pH.

"I would adjust applications upward or downward depending on the quality of the corn crop you grew this year and the soil test levels," says Needham, who notes that applications could vary widely, from 50 lb. to 150 lb. per acre.

To jump-start his wheat crop before the weather turns cold, Brittingham plans to apply 75 lb. of DAP 18-46-0 in the row with the seed. He doesn’t anticipate applying additional nitrogen until spring, when he’ll topdress the wheat crop with split applications.

"We’ll put around half on in February and then come back in late March and put the rest of it on," he says.

Acreage increase. Needham says that due to strong wheat prices, he anticipates farmers will plant more wheat this fall than last year, which also saw an acreage increase. The USDA–National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports that winter wheat production was approximately 1.67 billion bushels in 2012, up roughly 12% from 2011.

NASS indicates that uncertainty about the Black Sea region’s wheat conditions and the uneven U.S. corn crop helped drive wheat futures sharply higher this summer, a time when prices usually decline.

"The 750,000 acres we had in 2012 was the highest we’ve had in years; we typically have only 200,000 to 300,000 acres of winter wheat," notes Joel Ransom, North Dakota State University Extension agronomist.

Ready to plant. Ransom attributes the winter wheat acreage increase to the extreme moisture farmers had early this year, which prevented them from planting their normal spring crops.

Excess moisture will be the exception and not the rule this fall, Needham adds. "When no-tilling into hard, dry soils, it’s going to be really important that farmers make sure their seeding equipment is in good condition, ensuring that blades are new or sharp and that adequate down pressure and frame weight are utilized to plant at a consistent depth," he says.

Needham likes to see wheat planted approximately 1" under the soil surface, preferably into moisture.

"If you have heavy cornstalks, you may need to set your seeding depth to 2" to get the seed planted into the soil to 1"," he says. "Wheat seed doesn’t do well in residue. If it isn’t placed in the soil properly, it can die following cold weather."

Needham encourages farmers to plant good, clean, treated seed (preferably certified seed with the newest genetics), especially if they’re no-tilling wheat into cool soils. He expects seed counts this fall to range from 10,000 to 16,000 seeds per pound.

"Plant the seed population that’s appropriate for the soil conditions and planting date," he adds. "Don’t skimp on seed if it’s dry, as delayed rainfall will delay emergence and reduce fall tiller numbers."

Once seed is in the ground, scout fields regularly for insects, weeds and diseases, which can all have a huge impact on yields and profits.

If you are in a no-till rotation, be sure to use a burndown herbicide well ahead of planting if sufficient weed populations exist, Needham says.

"Not only will this control weeds, it will also help control insects that host within the weeds," he says. "If annual broadleaf or grass weeds emerge in the fall, take care of them before they compete with the crop for light, nutrients and moisture. My research, as well as other studies, supports the use of fall-applied herbicides."  

Planting Pointers

Get your wheat crop off on the right foot with these tips from high-yield wheat expert Phil Needham:

  • Make sure seeding equipment is in good condition.
  • Use clean, treated seed, especially if no-tilling wheat into cool soils.
  • Plant shorter, stiffer strawed varieties.
  • Plant wheat by seed population rather than by pound, and match the population to soil conditions and planting date.
  • Plant wheat 1" under the soil surface.
  • Band starter phosphate in the row, especially if no-till wheat is following corn. Needham recommends either MAP 11-52-0 or DAP 18-46-0, based solely on soil pH.
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