If your wheat crop starts with low-vigour seed and inconsistent seeding depth, it has no chance of reaching its yield potential, says Phil Needham

Phil Needham is originally from Lincolnshire, England, where average wheat yields are 120 bushels per acre. Results this year are closer to 130. Sure, climate is a factor. European farmers have a long growing season with 20 to 25 inches of annual rainfall in many of the major wheat-producing regions. But the mindset of European farmers is also a major factor. They believe that attention to detail pays off. “Wheat will respond very well to management,” Needham says.

A company called Miles Enterprises brought Needham and a few other European agronomists to Kentucky in the mid-1980s to prove this point. And they did. Average wheat yields in Kentucky were 35 bushels per acre or so in the 10 years leading up to 1986. This year, the average will be around 70 bushels per acre, Needham says. During that same time yields hardly grew at all in Kansas, a state where European-style intensive wheat production has not been adopted on a large scale.

Top yields begin with seed placement

Needham’s wheat management system has 20 or more steps, but for this article we’ll concentrate on how to achieve a uniform stand.

*Seed variety and quality. Use three or four varieties with different maturities to spread out your harvest, Needham recommends. Have your seed tested for vigour, then plant your highest-vigour seed first. “This high-quality seed should be able to emerge better in cooler soils,” Needham says.

You might also want to take the extra step of sizing your seed. Needham points to a 1990 University of Manitoba study led by Yantai Gan that shows higher emergence rates and higher yield for large seeds versus small seeds — even when the seeds come from same variety and seed lot.

Use a fungicide seed treatment and make sure it’s applied evenly to the seed. With the goal being even emergence, you want each seed to have equal protection from the seed treatment.

Make sure your equipment seeds to a uniform depth. “This is a simple basic fundamental task, but a lot of guys are missing out on that,” Needham says. Part of the problem may be simple adjustments and maintenance of equipment. “Many farmers don’t capture the full potential of seeding equipment because they don’t have them set properly,” he says.

But many of the drills at work in Western Canada just can’t do the job required, no matter how well they’re adjusted. “With the typical solid frame seeder, you will have some seed going three inches down and some on the surface,” Needham says. “That gives you three distinctly different emergence dates from a single seeding date.”

Why is this a problem? Lateemerging plants won’t yield as well, if they emerge at all. Gan’s University of Manitoba study also compared emergence rates and yield for wheat planted at one-inch, two-inch and three-inch depths. The shallow-seeded wheat emerged first, as expected, and also had distinctly higher yields.

In Gan’s study, the day the first seedling emerged was designated “day one.” And as the study’s abstract says, “plants that emerged on days one to three produced 1.4 times the yield of those emerged on days four to six, and 3.2 times the yield of those emerged on days seven to nine.”

The study concludes that, “Reduced yield of late-emerging plants was due primarily to fewer grain-bearing tillers,” and that shallow placement of large seeds minimizes the variation in seedling emergence and therefore increases grain yields.

Uneven emergence also presents a challenge for pesticide application, Needham adds. With wheat plants growing at different stages within the same field, you don’t get the best weed control because you can’t judge crop staging and your canopy doesn’t close as it should. And with wheat flowering at different times, it gets next to impossible to time a fusarium head blight control application. “You are absolutely wasting your time and money on a fungicide application if you’ve got some plants in flower and some a week behind,” he says.

Fertilize with care. You want seeding equipment that can follow terrain. You also want the seed opener to be clearly separated from the fertilizer opener. “Nitrogen placed too close to the seed can reduce emergence percentages, especially on coarser-textured soils and when using higher product rates, plus you can lose control over seeding depth with side band-style openers,” Needham says.

“I believe adequate separation between nitrogen and seed is important,” he adds. “While some nitrogen still needs to be placed in the seed row, getting rid of the side-band openers allows a cleaner seed furrow, with less soil disturbance and better seeding depth consistency.”

These are basic principles for top wheat yields, no matter where you farm. “Whether your yield goal is 50 bushels per acre or 100 bushels, you are losing yield if your crop isn’t out of the ground evenly,” Needham concludes.

*This is the first in a series of wheat management articles we’ll be doing with Phil Needham. Other topics in the series will be fertility, crop protection and residue management. In the meantime you can get more information at www.needhamag.com.You can also call 270-785-0999 to order his book called Taking Your Wheat Yields to the Next Level — The Northern Plains edition. Price is US$50.

Jay Whetter is editor of Grainews

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