Despite what appears to be a crappy growing season in many parts of Western Canada this year, don’t rule out the possibility of planting a winter cereal crop this fall. And in fact, planting winter wheat, fall rye or winter triticale this September may be the silver lining around an otherwise dismal cropping cloud.
Certain management factors have to be considered before seeding winter cereals. Proper timing for seeding, field selection and amount of stubble cover are three of the most important, say long time growers.
Planning is key, says Rick Istead, executive director of the Alberta Wheat Producers Commission. “You have to plan to include winter wheat in your crop rotation and that is sometimes hard for producers to understand,” he says. “Select the fields you want for winter wheat, get the spring crop seeded and harvested early, and also plan to fit winter wheat seeding in during the harvest season. Typically it doesn’t just happen, but if you plan for it you can get a system working that can help you include winter wheat in your rotation every year.”
So if you can get the crop planted in the proper seeding window for your area, and you have reasonable stubble to seed into, a winter cereal can be an economical and profitable crop that not only helps to spread out seeding workload, but also spreads out your cropping risk.
“The main reason we grow anything is to make a profit,” says Garth Butcher, who first grew winter wheat on his Birtle, Man., farm in the 1980s. “Yields will vary from year to year, but on average it can produce a 40 per cent higher yield than hard red spring wheat. Usually the price is lower for winter wheat, but when you consider the higher yield, it provides a good return.”
No. 1 winter wheat in the Canadian Wheat Board June 2009 Pool Return Outlook was listed at $6.50 per bushel, compared to hard red spring wheat at $7.35 per bushel. But if your hard red spring yielded 40 bushels per acre, and the winter wheat yielded even 25 to 30 per cent more (10 to 12 bushels more), that’s $30 to $45 more return per acre from the winter wheat. And if the yield was 40 per cent higher, the difference increases to $70 per acre.
BIGGER MARKETS FOR WINTER WHEAT
While there are several winter cereal cropping options for producers — winter wheat, winter triticale and fall rye — winter wheat is by far the predominate fall seeded crop in Western Canada, says Jake Davidson, executive manager of an organization known as Winter Cereals Canada. He’s based in Minnedosa, Man. Fall rye and winter triticale are excellent crops in their own right that grow and yield well, but securing markets is often the limiting factor.
Winter wheat production in Western Canada has been steadily increasing over the past few years. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have between 500,000 and 600,000 acres of winter wheat each, and Alberta has about 300,000 acres. There are efforts to increase winter wheat production in all regions. With new varieties and increased awareness, Istead sees no reason why in the next few years winter wheat production in Alberta alone couldn’t increase to one million acres.
Winter wheat acres ebb and flow depending on growing season conditions and harvest timing. The current growing season could go either way for winter wheat seeding this fall. Butcher, chairman of Winter Cereals Canada, says with late spring and a cool growing season in Manitoba, the canola crop has been delayed. Canola is the ideal stubble for winter wheat, and if the canola comes off late, that could wreck the September 1 to September 21 seeding window for winter wheat. He has seeded winter wheat on pea and barley stubble with good results. So there are other options.
In Alberta, the Russell family, south of Lethbridge has been growing winter wheat since the 1960s. Alex Russell, past president of the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission, says about one-quarter of their dryland and irrigated farm is seeded to winter wheat each year.
“With many parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan dealing with very dry conditions this year, I see there might be a real opportunity to seed winter wheat this fall,” says Russell. “It might be a case of making the best of a bad situation. If conditions are such that you have little or no spring crop in the field, it might be an opportunity to seed winter wheat in late August or early September.”
The Russells keep winter wheat in rotation for several reasons. In a year like 2009, even a small amount of moisture during the growing season may be enough to support winter wheat and produce a yield. Even if winter wheat only yields 30 to 35 bushels per acre, that’s still better than spring wheat yielding zero.
LOWER PEST CONTROL COSTS
Both Russell and Butcher say a good stand of winter wheat competes well with weeds, often eliminating the need for wild oat control in the crop.
Because winter wheat is maturing earlier than spring wheat, it also avoids common pests that can affect yield or increase crop input costs. Butcher says in Manitoba winter wheat usually flowers before the onset of fusarium head blight, and Russell says newer varieties of winter wheat have resistance to the wheat curl mite — the vector that carries wheat streak mosaic — so the crops are not affected by wheat streak mosaic.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]