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Managing wheat for profitability

There is growing evidence reaffirming the important role the inclusion of wheat in the crop rotation can have on total farm productivity and water quality. This combined with strong grain and straw yields in 2016 may have more farmers thinking about wheat this fall. But, to maximize the benefits of wheat, it must be properly managed.

“Wheat is not a four-letter word, but you have to manage it. We spend a lot of time doing our own wheat research on varieties, seed treatments, fungicides, growth regulators and other factors,” said Jim Howe with Star of the West Milling Company based in Michigan. “Our most exciting plot went 145.7 bushels per acre for white wheat. In Ohio, you should be able to blow the doors off these yields. Mathematically, wheat can produce 400 bushels per acre. It is what we do or don’t do that can make a difference.”

The folks at Star of the West understand the frustrations that can accompany growing wheat and the financial struggles for farms to justify the crop. But at the same time, they also know that they need a good quality supply of wheat for their business to be successful and are working to find the best, and most profitable, wheat production practices for farms in their test plot work.

“If it doesn’t pay for itself, we don’t recommend it,” Howe said. “One of the major factors influencing yield is planting date. Much of the strategy for success means getting tillers in the fall. Plant as early as you can possibly plant.”

There is a bit of disagreement between Howe and OSU Extension specialists on the ideal planting date for Ohio wheat. Extension, of course, recommends planting after the fly free date in the county (ranging from Sept. 22 for northern counties to Oct. 5 in the south). Howe is more interested in early-planted wheat.

“We talk a lot about Hessian flies, but I have never seen one. I want to err on the early side rather than late,” Howe said. “Planting depth is also critical because of emergence that affects flowering periods that affect sprouting. Plant as early as possible with 1.5 million to 2 million seeds per acre, planting higher populations later in the season.”

Ohio State University Extension recommends lower rates of 1.2 and 1.6 million seeds per acre planted uniformly at 1.5 inches deep. For drills with 7.5-inch row spacing this ends up being about 18 to 24 seeds per foot of row with normal sized seed.

“When wheat is planted on time, actual seeding rate has little effect on yield, but high seeding rates (above 30 seeds per foot of row) increase lodging and the risk of severe powdery mildew development next spring. During the 2014-2015 season with funding from the Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program, we conducted a wheat seeding rate study at three locations in Ohio (Crawford, Pickaway, and Wood counties),” wrote Laura Lindsey, Ohio State University wheat specialist in the CORN Newsletter. “We seeded wheat at 0.25, 0.50, 1, 1.5, and 2 million seeds per acre. On average, there was a nine bushel per acre yield reduction when seeding rate was reduced from 2 to 0.25 million seeds per acre. Economic return tended to be greatest when wheat was seeded between 1 to 1.5 million seeds per acre. There is no evidence that more seed is better, it only costs more money.”

Everyone agrees that careful consideration of fertility is also important for wheat.

“Managing tillers is very important and that can be done with proper nitrogen management — N promotes tiller growth and four to six tillers are ideal,” Howe said. “In the spring, wheat needs N to break dormancy and applying N as early as weather conditions allow helps. We consistently pick up bushels by split applying nitrogen. Apply N at green-up using a mix of slow release N.”

OSU Extension recommends application of 20 to 30 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre at planting to promote fall tiller development with phosphorus and potassium needs determined by a soil test.

“Wheat requires more phosphorus than corn or soybean, and soil test levels should be maintained between 25 parts per million (ppm) to 40 ppm for optimum production. If the soil test indicates less than 25 ppm, then apply 80 to 100 pounds of P2O5 at planting, depending on yield potential,” wrote Ed Lentz in the CORN Newsletter. “Do not add any phosphorus if soil test levels are higher than 50 ppm. Soil potassium should be maintained at levels of 100, 120, and 140 ppm for soils with cation exchange capacities of 10, 20, or 30 millequivalents, respectively. If potassium levels are low, apply 100 to 200 pounds of K2O at planting, depending on soil CEC and yield potential. In Ohio, limed soils usually have adequate calcium and magnesium. Soil pH should be between 6.3 and 7. Wheat generally does not respond to sulfur on most Ohio soils unless fields are sandy, low organic matter, low CEC, and/or have a history of sulfur response. Sulfur should be applied on responsive soils in the spring unless applying elemental sulfur.”

Howe said it is also important to scout early and often for weeds, aphids and other factors.

“We are at the end of April or the first of May when we start thinking about spraying weeds and we are not that far from Ohio,” Howe said. “Weed control is a must. I will not use 2,4-D or dicamba. It is an extra trip.”

Managing to prevent vomitoxin in wheat is a necessity. This starts with variety selection. Depending on the area of Ohio, it is important to find wheat varieties with good resistance to powdery mildew, Stagonospora leaf blotch, and leaf rust in addition to resistance to head scab that can lead to vomitoxin.

“Vomitoxin is a fungus and it makes non-ruminant animals throw up. That is where it gets the name. There is not a food company that is even willing to approach the federal guidelines in terms of food safety. No one wants it,” Howe said. “In the old days we could grind up those middlings in poor quality wheat and sell them for cattle feed, but today we have to pay to send them to a landfill. The standards have gone up that much and it makes a tremendous difference in what we can accept and what we can’t.”

Vomitoxin needs the right set of conditions to be a problem, but unfortunately those conditions are not uncommon in Ohio.

“It needs a host, rain during flowering and a pathogen. The mold that is in the soil to rot corn stalks is what causes vomitoxin. If you have corn, you have the mold. We leave crop residue on top of the soil and the pathogen is there so you should avoid planting wheat into corn residue. Burying stalks is a benefit,” Howe said. “We can’t predict the weather so if you plant wheat, you’d better plan on spraying fungicides. That is not a silver bullet, but they do reduce vomitoxin.

“You’re going to want to look at a fungicide program particularly at heading, which on a Feekes scale is a 10.51. Spray Prosaro using the highest labeled rate if you’re following corn. And you are going to want to watch the weather, but the real take home is that you need to deliberately plan on just spraying a fungicide to protect the kernel and harvest as soon as you can possibly harvest. By doing those things you can alleviate a lot of the potential for both sprouting and vomitoxin.”

Howe has also seen some success with other products.

“We have the most dramatic improvements with growth regulators. Palisade shortens node spacing and that increases the response to nitrogen,” he said.

Then, once the crop is ready, make sure the equipment is ready to harvest a high quality crop.

“Clean the trucks, combines and grain bins and harvest early,” Howe said. “Combines make a nice home for four-legged fur bearing creatures that like to move in in the fall and then ride to the elevator in the truck after harvest.”

With careful management, wheat can once again be a valuable part of Ohio’s crop rotations.

“If you go with a full management program with wheat, I think we can easily go for a 140-bushel to 150-bushel range in Ohio and go up from there,” Howe said.

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