Winter wheat may not have the prestige of being a pasta or bread wheat, but its high yield potential and requirement that it be seeded in the fall makes it a good fit in the crop rotation for many farms. Now, with millions of acres unseeded or drowned out in Western Canada, any late summer or fall seeded crop is getting more than a second glance from farmers.
That’s good news for Mark Akins, conservation programs specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada and a farmer from near Avonlea, Sask. Part of his job is convincing farmers to grow the crop. “Winter wheat is fantastic habitat for waterfowl,” Akins says. Winter wheat provides essential cover for several species of water fowl, including some ducks that won’t rebuild their nests if disturbed, which typically happens when fields are seeded in the spring. “Winter wheat provides green cover (preferred by many species), and activities such as fertilizing or spraying doesn’t seem to disturb the nests like seeding does. On average, you’ll see ten times greater nest success in winter wheat versus spring wheat,” Akins says.
“Our goal is two million acres by 2013,” Akins says. “If there’s any good that can come out of such a wet year like 2010, I hope it’s that we can capture some of the winter wheat acres we’ve lost over the years.”
Akins and I recently did a field tour of some very soggy but pretty impressive winter wheat fields. From what we saw near Watrous and Govan, Sask., winter wheat was a clear winner in a horrid spring such as this one. The advantage of a fall-seeded crop was clear this year — the crop was there, growing and using up water since the spring thaw while most other fields were behind or completely unseeded.
Akins and I toured research plots as well as many winter wheat fields and discussed the best management practices for doing winter wheat right. Here’s his top-five tips for growing the crop:
CHOOSE THE BEST STUBBLE POSSIBLE
Canola stubble is preferred for growing winter wheat. It provides good snow trap — the key to winter wheat survival in our tough winters. “Four inches of snow cover will insulate the plant against just about any winter temperatures, even minus 30,” Akins says. While you can’t control how much snowfall happens, having stubble there to catch and collect what does fall will help decrease the incidence and level of winterkill.
Akins says that consecutive late harvest seasons have played a role in decreasing winter wheat acres from 1.2 million in 2007 to just 600,000 in 2009. The past few years have pushed canola 1
harvest past the winter wheat seeding window (August 15 to September 15, roughly). Some farmers have seeded their winter wheat into pea stubble or other types, but Akins wouldn’t recommend that for someone trying out the crop. “It’s not ideal, and for the first two or three years of growing the crop, it’s best to stick with what we know works,” he says.
Of course, if you’ve got no stubble at all — as is the case this year for many — you can still grow winter wheat; the stakes are just a little higher. “There is a new research project starting up that will look at some other stubble options. Once we’ve done some trials we’ll be better able to make recommendations in less than ideal circumstances,” Akins says.
While seeding winter wheat into chemfallow isn’t ideal, it will provide ground cover, anchor the soil, and, fingers crossed, with good snow cover should still come through the winter okay. If nothing else, the wicked wet spring of 2010 is a prime example of why fall seeded crops are a good risk and time-management tool.
USE A PRE-SEED BURNOFF
Winter wheat is a relatively competitive crop, however perennial and fall-germinating weeds can be particularly nasty. A pre-seed burnoff is always recommended, Akins says, at the equivalent of one litre per acre of glyphosate. “Often now farmers also use glyphosate with other actives for extended broadleaf control in fall,” he says. “This may help control volunteer canola or winter annuals that start after the winter wheat has germinated.”
It can be a bit of a mind shift to drag the seeder out in August and even more of an adjustment to seed into dry soil. “Seeding in late August or early September can mean seeding into some pretty dry soil and that’s not something farmers are really comfortable with. The temptation is often to seed down into moisture, but, depending on how far down that is, it’s not necessary,” Akins says.
If you’ve got moisture an inch down (a possibility this year) than no worries, but Akins doesn’t recommend going further than an inch. “The seed will germinate after some rain, but seed too deep and even a good soaking won’t reach it. It’s better to seed into dry, shallow soil than to put it two inches down and miss out on the rains,” Akins says.
Akins adds that seeding rates mirror spring wheat at an average of two bushels per acre. Farmers typically seed within a one and a half to two and a half bushel per acre range. “Seed is pretty inexpensive; it doesn’t pay to scrimp,” he says. As for seed treatments, Akins recommends them, even though soil conditions are usually dry at seeding. “This is another area where we’re working on research to better gauge the cost-benefit of different management practices,” he says.
Fertilizing winter wheat is one of the more debated practices when growing the crop. There are a few good options but some riskier choices, such as putting all the N on in the fall, should be avoided.
Based on field assessments this spring, if you’re going to put any nitrogen down at seeding, it’s best to protect it in some manner. “Winter wheat doesn’t do a whole lot of growing in the fall; its nitrogen needs are pretty low (at that time),” Akins says. While time constraints or seeder set up might make putting all the nitrogen down at seeding easiest, that N is susceptible to losses from leaching and gassing off long before the crop needs it and is capable of using it.
Your best bet is to either do a split fall/spring application, or use some sort of N protection, such as ESN, on fall applied N, or to apply all N in the spring either straight or with a product like Agrotain. Products such as ESN and Agrotain do add to the cost of nitrogen, but Akins notes these products are meant for risk management. Farmers who fall applied N in 2009 who spent the extra cash on ESN likely came out ahead, for example, because of wet conditions.
For farmers new to winter wheat growing, Akins says a fall/spring split application or full rate broadcast in the spring is a good risk-management practice. “You can always top dress in the spring depending on the yield potential and how the growing season is shaping up,” he says. You can’t take back N you put on in the fall, but you can always add more in the spring.
Akins recommends planning for an early broadleaf herbicide application done in late April to middle of May. “There’s no best product, just choose something that controls your farm’s weed spectrum,” he says.
As for fungicides, Akins says that there are a few farmers who have been adding a half rate of Bumper with the early herbicide application. “We haven’t really seen this pencil out. The crop might look greener, but it doesn’t translate into higher yields,” he says. The better approach is to take the time to make a full-rate application at the appropriate time to control either leaf disease or fusarium head blight, depending on which is the greatest concern. Waiting for the flag leaf to early heading to go in seems to be the most effective timing.
If all the talk of risk and time management plus higher yields and expanded marketing options doesn’t sway you into trying out winter wheat, perhaps an incentive of money will help. As a bonus for growing the crop, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) is offering new (and new-ish) winter wheat growers in certain areas a minimum of $4 an acre to plant the crop this fall. DUC has also partnered with Bayer CropScience, which is offering rebates on specific products for use on winter wheat. Contact DUC or your local Bayer CropScience rep for full details.
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