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Make the grade with winter wheat

Just like spring wheat, winter wheat products end up in our bread, our animals or our cars. Each potential market has specific quality requirements, and in a freer marketing environment for western Canadian wheat, those end-user needs will be increasingly important.

What do customers want?

“I think grain companies are going to be reaching out to individual purchasers and looking at a more specific, characteristic-based pricing regime,” says Curtis Sims, a winter wheat grower from MacGregor, Man, and a director of Winter Cereals Manitoba Inc. “I think, over time, there will be changes in terms of what you’ll be paid for a specific sample of wheat, based on its characteristics as determined by the end user, just as producers do currently with edible beans or sunflowers or oats. I think the industry is going to be a lot more ambitious, aggressive and energetic.”

For now, farmers have to rely on the Canadian Grain Commission’s lists of varieties and specific quality requirements each market sector will accept.

“With the upcoming changes in wheat marketing I think it remains to be seen how the marketers of wheat are going to handle what varieties are going to be acceptable for their target end use market,” says Pam de Rocquigny, cereal specialist with Manitoba, Agriculture, Food and aRural Initiatives (MAFRI). “Increased communication between the producers and the companies that are now buying wheat will be important going forward.”

One of the biggest barriers for winter wheat milling varieties, Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW), is the fact that they provide high grain yields but often at the expense of protein levels. These can fall below the 11 per cent minimum set by the Canadian Wheat Board as the minimum milling quality for winter wheat.

Choosing varieties

The dominant variety in Manitoba has been CDC Falcon, a CWRW variety scheduled to be moved to the Western General Purpose wheat class in August 2014. Four other CWRW varieties, CDC Clair, CDC Harrier, CDC Kestrel and CDC Raptor are being moved to the General Purpose class in August 2013.

Some farmers are moving to other varieties to try and achieve milling quality. “It’s been problematic, and farmers are starting to change winter wheat varieties to try for higher protein but are probably giving up yield,” says Sims. “I do see opportunities for a more streamlined market in the future, so maybe events will overtake the impact of these rigid structural changes on the actual marketing environment, and we will end up with a fairer price for our winter wheat based on more than just protein.”

Less commonly grown winter wheat varieties are often more acceptable in niche or alternative markets. CWRW wheat has excellent milling quality but is more suited to baking applications where a darker coloured end product (due to the red bran content of the wheat) does not discourage consumers. These include specialty, artisan-type breads and oriental noodles.

The ethanol industry prefers lower-protein grain, but requires a higher starch content, and in particular, soft kernel white winter wheat varieties such as CDC Ptarmigan. Husky Energy, also requires the wheat it purchases as a feedstock to weigh at least 58 pounds per bushel, have less than 15 per cent moisture, no mould and no more than 1.0 parts per million vomitoxin or DON (from fusarium-infected kernels).

Maximizing quality

Farmers growing winter wheat must be prepared to tackle logistical problems, like how to juggle harvesting spring-seeded crops while they’re seeding winter cereals. However, many farmers rate higher yields, conservation benefits and a reduction in peak season pressure as good reasons for growing winter wheat.

The following production tips can help farmers produce high quality winter wheat crops to provide maximum marketing flexibility when it comes to marketing options. (With thanks to the University of Saskatchewan’s Winter Wheat Production Manual and MAFRI’s Winter Wheat Production and Management Guide.)

Preparation

Winter wheat works best under a zero-till system, with crop residue helping reduce the risk of winterkill and retain moisture for use by the crop in early spring. Every effort should be made to conserve soil moisture during seeding as lack of fall moisture can be a limiting factor for winter wheat production.

Avoid tillage and improper drill- furrow closure to prevent soil moisture loss. Chemical summerfallow can ensure more fall moisture to establish the winter wheat crop, but there may not be enough stubble to trap snow for spring moisture requirements.

Spread straw and chaff uniformly on fields that are to be seeded to winter wheat. Where seeding is to be done with a disc drill, straw must be well chopped.

Preventing disease transfer from spring to winter crops is really important, says Sims, who usually sprays a glyphosate herbicide before seeding in the fall to kill off any volunteers, which eliminates the “green bridge” and prevents the spread of wheat streak mosaic virus.

Seeding

Winter wheat should be sown as early as possible, usually late August or early September. Ideally, winter wheat plants should be well established (with approximately three leaves) before freeze-up. Areas which usually experience earlier frosts should try to plant as early as possible, and by August 30 at the latest.

“The earlier you seed affects how soon it’s ready to be combined next summer,” says Sims. “Not many people realize how much of a direct correlation there is between seeding date and harvesting date.”

Seed at a shallow depth — no more than three-quarters to one inch — and make sure that the seed drill is properly adjusted to achieve the correct depth. “Winter wheat starts on less moisture than you might think so you don’t need to seed too deep to try and find moisture,” says Sims. Seed should be covered with soil that is well packed but should not be covered to a depth of more than one inch.

Always plant clean seed and varieties recommended for the growing area. Take special precautions to avoid the introduction of weeds from other winter wheat production areas. A seed treatment will ensure the establishment of healthy stands and help control smut. Preliminary research from a large Prairie-wide Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) agronomy project reports significantly higher grain yield with a combination fungicide/insecticide seed treatment over not treating seed.

Seed at recommended rates. Most agronomists recommend 40 to 45 seeds per square foot to achieve a target plant population of 20-30 plants per square foot. A thin winter wheat stand has the potential to tiller and therefore compensate for low plant counts.

Fertilizing

Compared to spring wheat, winter wheat is usually more responsive to nitrogen (N) fertilization and can be a heavy feeder, especially as no-till fields can be deficient in available soil nitrogen. Consequently it’s not a good idea to skimp on N.

MAFRI recommends testing soil before winter wheat seeding to determine appropriate N application and fertilizing for maximize the yield potential. Without soil-test results, general recommendations suggest applying N at a rate of 80 to 120 pounds per acre.

New technologies are providing more options, particularly for in-crop fertilization. Systems like the GreenSeeker use optical sensors to measure reflectance of growing plants and calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI), which is highly correlated to biomass and can be used to predict grain yield potential. This offers another tool to assess N needs during the growing season and top up nutrient levels to match yield potential.

AAFC Scientists at Indian Head and Brandon are developing a specific algorithm for GreenSeeker for winter wheat, which will establish the baselines for in-field calculations of winter wheat N requirements.

“The laboratory soil test is a good place to start but so many things can change in the field and environmentally,” says Byron Irvine, Research Manager at AAFC’s Brandon Research Centre. “You can’t guarantee that when you put on 100 pounds of N you will get the yield and that’s the frustrating part. The GreenSeeker technology can give an idea of what is happening with the growing crops and what the nutrient requirement really is.”

Sims says that his preferred method of applying N is dribble banding a liquid fertilizer in the spring. In general he uses about 100 pounds per acre of 28-0-0 and sometimes a little sulphur too.

Phosphate fertilizers should be applied at recommended rates. MAFRI suggests 30 to 40 lbs./acre to give the germinating seedlings immediate access to an adequate supply of phosphorus to get them started. Phosphorus helps winter wheat resist winter damage and gives earlier maturity, especially in growing seasons with cool, damp spring weather.

Weed, disease and pest management

Winter wheat is highly competitive and can choke out many annual summer weeds by getting off to an early start.

It’s probably best to try and avoid winter wheat in fields which are heavily infested with perennial weeds like quackgrass. Other broadleaf, winter annual weeds like stinkweed, shepherd’s purse, flixweed and narrow-leaved hawk’s beard can be controlled with 2,4-D applied in mid-October during a frost-free period and once weeds have germinated. Check for summer annual weed development in the early spring and try to spray them as early as possible.

Don’t be too hasty to plough down a poor-looking spring stand. Winter wheat has the tillering capacity to compensate for low plant stands. Populations as low as 15 plants per square foot can still recover to produce acceptable grain yield.

Choosing disease resistant cultivars and properly managing the crop are the first lines of defence against disease, although weather conditions play a huge role.

Fungicides may be necessary to control foliar diseases such as powdery mildew, septoria leaf blotch, tan spot or rusts, but an economic assessment should be made before applying foliar fungicides to ensure that the crop’s yield potential justifies the cost. Scount regularly and early, as fungicides are usually most effective before diseases are too advanced.

Sims rarely uses fungicides on his winter wheat, except in special circumstance such as where the crop is very dense or very wet conditions prevail through the season. “Fungicides aren’t automatic or compulsory,” he says. “It’s a matter of choice but I haven’t found that they make a big difference to quality or yield.”

Most winter wheat varieties currently registered have low levels of resistance to pests such as aphids, wheat curl mite (which spreads wheat streak mosaic virus), wheat stem sawfly, wheat stem maggot and hessian fly. Consult provincial crop protection guides for more information on economic thresholds and recommended control treatments.

Rotation

Consecutive years of winter wheat should be avoided due to disease risks. Most farmers prefer to seed winter wheat into canola stubble, although it has followed oats in the rotation with some success. Winter wheat is best sown after early-maturing spring crops. It can also follow a spring wheat crop if it’s harvested early enough, but a fungicide will almost certainly be necessary in this scenario.

Harvest

Harvest should be done promptly. Winter wheat has little or no seed dormancy and care must be taken to prevent sprouting once it reaches maturity. Do not let winter wheat lie in the swath any longer than is absolutely necessary. Exposure to damp, warm weather in August can result in rapid deterioration of the crop. “Winter wheat will sprout even standing if it’s left out there through a lot of rain so you need to get at it and get it off,” says Sims.

Winter wheat can be swathed when the kernels have 35 per cent moisture or less without loss of yield, bushel weight or quality. Wheat kernels with a moisture content of 14 per cent can be safely combined without the need for drying. Kernels with a moisture content of 20 per cent can be combined and dried without loss of quality. Wheat is dry and safe for one year storage at 14.5 per cent.

If feasible, farmers can reduce the risk of sprouting by straight combining. Warm temperatures in August, when winter wheat is normally harvested, also make aeration drying an attractive option. Or it can be mechanically dried. “I know it sounds bizarre to be drying in the second week of August but we’ve done it just so we can keep rolling,” says Sims.

Storage

Good general storage conditions are important to maintain the quality and as the crop is often hot, cooling fans may be needed to bring the temperature down.

Moulds and mites tend to be inactive when storage moisture is below 13 per cent. If storage temperatures are below 8 C, insects are inactive. Below 3 C, moulds become inactive.

There are several online resources for farmers looking for more information about winter wheat. A good place to start is www.wintercereals.ca. †

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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