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Kiwi secrets to growing record wheat

This New Zealand farmer has grown wheat yielding 232 bushels per acre

An agronomist from New Zealand who helped a grower in that country set world wheat yield records was a guest speaker at this year’s Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown, Ont.

According to Graeme Jones, arable business manager with PGG Wrightson Seeds, the recipe has three key ingredients: environment, management and genetics.

Although the current wheat yield world record is held by a grower from the United Kingdom, Mike Solaris of New Zealand set the record first in 2007 with 228.448 bushels per acre and then again in 2010 with 232.507 bushels per acre. He farms 144 hectares (approximately 355 acres) at the bottom of the country’s South Island.

New Zealand isn’t a global player in wheat production; its crops are used predominantly in domestic milling and in feed for the nation’s large dairy sector.

“We started making the biggest quantum leaps in the late 2000s and although we’re a small producer internationally, we have high yields and quality,” Jones said.

The long growing season and a moderate maritime climate is one major advantage for New Zealand wheat growers. Long, slow growth due to a mild climate with few extreme stress events — like temperatures over 30 C — makes for an ideal cropping environment, and high energy winter sun produces a rich plant that’s ready for spring, said Jones.

Pillars to success

When it comes to management, Jones outlined four pillars to Solaris’ success: adapting varieties to suit conditions, placing wheat in the rotation after a legume or brassica crop to break disease cycles, targeted overall plant nutrition and smart use of fungicide chemistry.

Solaris’ runs sheep on his clover-based pasture for two years, before following that up with autumn wheat, spring barley, peas, autumn wheat, oilseed rape, autumn wheat, and autumn barley before sowing it down into pasture again.

“Getting it seeded and established before winter is critical,” he explained, which means no later than April 20 in the southern hemisphere, but usually around mid-March. That’s the equivalent of mid-September to mid-October in North America.

“Fall root growth is twice that of winter. You want deep rooting for potential drought and you’ll get better fertilizer response if your plants are coming out of the winter strong, so grow as much root before winter as possible,” he advised.

According to Jones, the basic rule of thumb for nitrogen application is 60 per cent applied by flag leaf and 40 per cent applied after flag leaf at early ear emergence.

“We have to be environmentally conscious when putting nitrogen on. Over or under fertilizing causes economic losses, so use small amounts early and more in the middle stages. High-yielding wheat crops need more nitrogen especially later in the growing season,” he said.

A robust fungicide program is needed to keep the canopy alive and maintain it, Jones stated, adding that the strategy is keep the ear and the top three leaves clean.

This year, in an effort to add to his world record credentials, Solaris is experimenting with trace elements on his current wheat crop, including manganese, zinc, copper and iron. Another change he’s made is the number of grains per square meter — his world records were set with 500 to 600 grains per square meter, and this year he is working with 750.

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