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Winter Wheat For Wet Acres

While many Prairie farmers are happy with how the crop looks, huge swaths of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are facing unprecedented flooding. For some, this is year two or even three of excessive water. Planting crops in the fall can help in these situations in a few ways. Crops seeded in August are up, growing and using water for several months going into winter. The crop also starts growing and using water early in the spring. What’s more, acres seeded in August are acres you sure won’t need to get into early in the year to seed, easing an already intense workload.

Winter wheat typically delivers a decent yield bump over spring wheat and feed prices are still attractive, and, as one farmer put it during this monsoon season of 2011, “Any crop is better than no crop.” For those faced with unseeded acres this year, winter wheat may be a good fit. If you’re new to winter wheat, the idea of dragging the seeder out in August might seem pretty strange, but if you can get past that and take heed of some of the following tips, you may be mighty pleased come spring (especially — touch wood — if it’s another wet one).

CREATING STUBBLE

The trick with winter wheat is to get it to come through the winter healthy and ready to grow. That usually requires good snow trap to insulate the plants from the harsh weather. Snow is trapped by tall, stiff stubble, ideally canola stubble, and that’s something many farmers with unseeded acres just won’t have. Pam de Rocquigny, provincial cereal specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, says that in the absence of good stubble, marginal stubble will do.

“Last year’s stubble will be long gone, even if the field was left unseeded so some farmers have had success creating stubble by letting weeds and volunteers grow a bit longer than usual. Let them use up some water, then spray them out,” de Rocquigny says.

If you can manage it (without weeds setting seed or certain weeds, like wild buckwheat, getting too large), spray the field a few weeks before seeding. There is a risk of wheat streak mosaic virus spreading from green cereal tissue to newly germinated winter wheat, so always make sure volunteers and weeds are dead and brown before seeding, de Rocquigny says. “You should ensure that there is at least 10 days to two weeks of no green material prior to planting”

Some farmers choose to seed flax or Polish canola late and spray that out prior to seeding, which does create better stubble, but costs significantly more. At this point in the year, that’s not an option, but one to keep in mind for subsequent years.

HOW EARLY CAN YOU SEED?

In the spring, it’s all about early, early, early. With winter wheat, there is an ideal window — there’s such thing as too early and too late. If you’re looking at unseeded acres, it is possible to get in there too early, giving the plant too much time to grow. Overly large plants are more susceptible to winterkill, as de Rocquigny says, “The cells in the crown get too large and are more likely to be damaged by freezing in the fall and winter. Also, too much leaf tissue could leave you open to higher disease pressure.”

What’s ideal? That depends on where you farm. For Manitoba, de Rocquigny says farmers should aim for August 25, and wrap up seeding by early September. Crop insurance will cover you until September 15 with extended coverage to September 20. The key, de Rocquigny says, is to have winter wheat at the three-to four-leaf stage with one tiller and well-developed crown tissue going into winter. It may not hurt to choose a variety with a slightly higher winter survival rating if you’re seeding into less-than- ideal stubble conditions. Or you can consider fall rye which is more tolerant of colder temperatures than winter wheat.

Ideal seeding time in Alberta is similar to Manitoba, with the southern portion of the province likely to seed in early to mid-September, with more northern areas starting seeding in late August.

In Saskatchewan, the seeding window is somewhat earlier. Mark Akins, conservation program specialist at Ducks Unlimited Canada based near Avonlea, Sask., says that some farmers were caught last year when they waited for the “ideal time” only to have the rains return in late August. “Because it’s so wet, I’d say get seeding during the first dry period after August 10,” he says. It’s not entirely ideal, but if the weather turns wet late in the summer you may miss your chance. Crop insurance varies by province, of course, so check that you’re eligible for coverage if that’s important to you.

When seeding, aim for a germinated, growing stand of about 25 plants per square foot. Seeding rates are similar to spring wheat, however it’s always a good idea to do a 1,000 kernel weight calculation and account for germ rates versus a rule-of-thumb bushels per acre. (See sidebar for a formula for determining your seeding rate this way.)

“It’s not a bad idea to bump seeding rates and use a seed treatment to get that crop off to the best start possible,” Akins says. “The healthier and more vigorous the stand is going into the winter the better chance it will survive, even without ideal stubble.

Winter wheat has no dormancy issues, either, so feel free to harvest one week and use the same seed the next for a new crop, de Rocquigny says.

N NOW OR N LATER

And what about fertilizer? Experts always recommend approximately 20 pounds of actual phosphorus to go down with the seed as P is crucial to a germinating crop and essential for winter survival. Nitrogen (N), however, is always a hotly debated topic. Nitrogen put down at seeding is in the field long before it’s needed and thus susceptible to losses. Should you put down some, none or use an N-protecting product like ESN?

The answer, as usual, is it depends. It’s usually possible to get into the field early enough in the spring to top dress with N, however, that’s been a struggle the last few years. Some farmers put down half of the N with the seed as a risk management tool (just in case they can’t get back in the spring). Still others will treat some or all of the N with ESN to minimize losses. Research suggests that N put down with winter wheat much later in the season is at less risk to losses, but it really comes down to your comfort level. “If you’ve done a soil test and soil N is extremely low, it may be worth putting down half or some of the N at seeding,” de Rocquigny says.

WHAT TO DO IN THE SPRING

Come spring, winter wheat can look very rough, so give it a few weeks before deciding on whether or not it made it through winter ok. Winter wheat only needs about eight plants per square foot (that survive the winter) to make a decent stand — fewer than spring wheat. Assessments shouldn’t start until about mid- May. It may take until late May to accurately gauge how well a stand survived winter.

Farmers should plan to control weeds early in-crop and may want to pencil in both a leaf-disease and fusarium-controlling fungicide application if yield potential is high. Both leaf disease and fusarium have been issues this year and last due to cool, wet springs. In more average years, winter wheat is usually flowering prior to when fusarium risk is highest. All currently available varieties, however, are susceptible to fusarium infection.

LyndseySmithiseditorofGrainewsand reallyloveswinterwheat.

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