Wheat consultant Phil Needham likes to help farmers separate the wheat from the chaff. His practical classroom instruction helps growers evaluate their agronomic practices and then regroup the pieces into a comprehensive management strategy.
Needham says most wheat farmers he works with already use good management practices; they typically just need to make some adjustments.
"It’s the small incremental changes you make in your management practices that really add up to greater yields at harvest," says Needham, a high-yield wheat expert who works with farmers in the U.S. and Canada.
"Fairly small things like fine-tuning seeding and nitrogen rates can make significant contributions to crop success," he adds.
Wheat farmers across the Midwest tapped into Needham’s crop production expertise this past February during the inaugural Farm Journal Wheat College sessions in Fargo, N.D., and Wichita, Kan.
During the daylong sessions, Needham addressed wheat seed variety selection, seeding rates, planting depth, emergence patterns, residue management, tillage and fertility. At each event, Needham worked in conjunction with Missy Bauer, Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist.
Establishing a consistent number of wheat heads per square yard is one practice Needham says wheat producers would benefit from implementing. He recommends that 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. Growers whose acreage receives little rainfall each season 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 at those depths.
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 reach yield goals, farmers should be ready to apply nitrogen early. "Those first three to six weeks are critical. You don’t want to starve a plant early in the season," Needham says. Yields are determined at the five-leaf and jointing stages.
Attendees respond. A strong response from farmers at the seminars underscored wheat’s appeal as a crop.
"I really liked being able to ask questions as we went along, and my banker will like that I should be more profitable as a result," says Trevor Smieja of Belgrade, Mont.
Smieja drove nearly 800 miles to participate in the Fargo program. "I would like to see something like this event in Montana sometime, maybe some hands-on training," he adds.
High-yield wheat doesn’t require rocket science, just commitment and attention to detail, Needham says. "Some of these tips, such as application timing, don’t cost much and can give you a big bang for your buck."