FARGO, N.D. – Most farmers would be skeptical if someone said they could triple their wheat yields by following a few simple recommendations – no special product purchases, just good agronomic knowledge.
That was Steven Swanhorst’s reaction following a producer meeting organized by his fertilizer dealer 10 years ago.
The farmer from Chelsea, South Dakota, was skeptical but also curious.
Swanhorst recalls how Phil Needham, at the time working for Opti-Crop, explained that growing big wheat crops, was just a matter of diligent management and a few slightly different practices.
Needham’s management strategies had already been proven in replicated trials across the northern Great Plains, so Swanhorst had confidence in his recommendations.
“Before I talked to Phil, we considered 25 bushels of spring wheat to be a pretty good crop around here, and 35 was tops,” Swanhorst said.
“The first year using his recommendations, we went 60 to 80 bu. on our spring wheat, and we’ve banged out 100 bu. on winter wheat pretty regularly.”
His next surprise came the second year when he realized it wasn’t a onetime phenomenon. He has grown eight crops of that size since first talking to Needham.
“We consider it a wreck now if spring wheat drops below 60. Makes us feel like we’ve failed somehow. We had a real bad drought one year. Spring wheat went 25 bu. and our winter wheat went 55. That used to be a good crop for us before, but now it’s a crop failure. We didn’t even want to start the combines that year.”
Swanhorst often considers it a miracle that anything grows on his 8,000 acre farm in central South Dakota, where a thin layer of topsoil covers a thick base of gravel or heavy clay.
He seeds 6,000 acres of oddly shaped fields a year, while the remaining 2,000
acres comprise creek bottom and potholes that are not drainable or which the federal government will not let him drain.
Swanhorst was already in the process of converting his 6,000 acres to no-till continuous cropping when he followed agronomy advice from Needham, which likely contributed to his yield increases.
He said many producers in his region practice minimum-till, but cultivate periodically. When he made the switch, he committed to permanently parking his cultivator.
Looking back at that season, Swanhorst says it all seems simple.
“I just did everything Phil said I should do. And just like that, bang, I got these results the first year. It was just four or five little things. I thought to myself, ‘gull dang it. I don’t want to do that.’ But I followed through and it worked great right off the bat.”
A higher plant population was one of the first changes.
Needham told Swanhorst to increase the number of live seeds sown per sq. yard, which is especially necessary in a no-till regime. He also recommended a seed treatment fungicide.
Both moves made sense to Swanhorst, but he balked at nitrogen starvation. Needham’s strategy called for lots of phosphorus in the row with the seed but little or no nitrogen.
He said that in some cases this won’t work, such as in land with little or no residual nitrogen. However, most fields have enough to get started and when necessary a starter application can be seed placed.
Instead, nitrogen is applied once or twice as a spring post emergence application, with timing based on tiller populations and plant health.
“The idea is to starve high-tillering (winter wheat) varieties of N so they won’t tiller out excessively.”
Swanhorst said the theory is that tillers in spring wheat produce little grain. The main stem produces about 85 percent of the grain, so the goal is to have a big head, healthy strong straw and no tillers.
“I used to see those tillers when the wheat was young and I’d think that’s great. But man I was wrong. The tillers waste fertilizer and moisture and they cause lodging. I had some winter wheat a few years back. The field that tillered ended up lodging and laying down. It went 50 to 60 bushels.
“The other field didn’t tiller. It stood up good and went 102 to 109 bu. They were similar fields except for the tillering.”
Winter wheat breeder Brian Fowler from the University of Saskatchewan agreed that tillers can drain wheat’s resources and reduce yields should they be lost to later season drought. They can also interfere with maturity if they develop late in the season.
However, Fowler said most of winter wheat’s yields come from tillers.
“The plant tries to make the maximum use of the resources it has and it gets signals from its resources, nutrients and water,” he said.
“Most of our varieties have 150 bu. (per acre) crop potential in the spring. The trick is to maintain as much as you can, so you need to work with the climate you normally deal with.
“I wouldn’t reduce N early in the season. I would increase the seeding rate and increase the number of main tillers and reduce the others. Split applications with early N can be effective, but the crop needs to know it has some resources or it will cut back.… If you are going to split N, get it on early to optimize yield potential and if you have the moisture you can apply more. But it’s always about managing that risk.”
In South Dakota, Swanhorst next agreed to practice stream bar applied nitrogen, which he can accomplish at more than 100 acres per hour using his self-propelled sprayer with a 1,200 gallon tank.
His system delivers liquid nitrogen evenly and accurately, without excessive leaf scorch. It brings nitrogen levels up to the point that the crop achieves maximum yield.
A side benefit of little or no nitrogen at seeding time is that delaying application of the bulky fertilizer product simplifies and speeds up the entire seeding operation, which puts the crop into a better emergence window.
Needham recommended adding an insecticide and a fungicide for leaf diseases when spraying herbicide.
“The point is to protect the early developing head and maximize grain sites,” Swanhorst said.
“We tried a number of different insecticides over the years and found out it didn’t matter which one we used. It always helped the head stay healthy.
“Then he also has me do a second fungicide later in the season for head diseases, regardless of the weather conditions. All these things contribute to the high yields.”
Despite a decade of successful wheat production, Swanhorst will soon stop growing the crop.
“As of 2011, we’ll be out of wheat completely,” he said.
“Our rotation in recent years has been a third wheat, a third beans and a third corn. Next year we’ll be half beans, half corn. No more wheat on this farm.
“And I’m getting set up to eventually go 100 percent corn at some point if I find that makes sense. I finally have enough storage and handling capacity for all 6,000 acres of corn.”
Swanhorst said he mainly operates the entire farm by himself, doing all the seeding, spraying and hauling.
“At harvest, I hire the same two guys every year. I pay them a lot of money because they’re worth it and they’re always happy to come back every year.
“Other than harvest, I do everything else myself, so things have to be simple and fast. Three crops in the rotation just created too much complexity.
“All the weeds we have on this farm and all the farms around here are what I call ‘wheat weeds:’ cheat grass, wild oats, buckwheat, all weeds related to wheat.”
He said half beans and half wheat wasn’t working as well as he wanted in terms of weed control. Putting corn into one-third of the rotation worked for a while, but eventually turned his weed control program into a logistical nightmare.
The last straw came this year when torrential rain left much of the farm unseeded. His sprayer couldn’t move 100 metres without sinking into the mud. The big backhoe was called in numerous times. Meanwhile, those wheat weeds kept growing.
“When I looked at all those fields that didn’t get planted, all I see out there is wheat weeds, tall thick wheat weeds everywhere.
“Then I look back over the last 60 years on this farm, and my dad and uncles and everybody just raised wheat, barley, millet, rye and oats. So now I’ve got probably another 60 years of wheat weed seeds in the seed bank here.”
He tried planting two years of corn followed by two years of beans, resulting in the near elimination of all weeds on those fields.
“But the minute I throw wheat back on the field, bam, there’s my wheat weeds again. So that’s the end of wheat on this farm.”