Wheat agronomist Phil Needham admits his four primary cornerstones for growing 100 bushel spring wheat in central Saskatchewan seem basic, but they work.
Needham makes as many as 80 presentations a year outlining his four principles of growing big wheat crops, usually with a handful of those workshops on the Canadian Prairies, where he has clients.
Before digging into those cornerstones, he emphasizes to the audience that a big wheat crop is only likely if the head count is 500 to 600 per sq. yard. Fewer heads are acceptable. Many more than 600 heads will doom the crop to mediocrity.
“I’ve found that a number closer to 500 heads is better in the typically lower rainfall areas of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In areas where you often get more rain, then push it up to 600 heads per sq. yard,” Needham said.
“There’s still a lot of growers out there who think a really thick field is good. I’ve scouted fields in all three provinces and counted 800 or 1,000 or even more heads per sq. yard. Once I’ve convinced these growers to cut back on their seeding rate, then the next year, their plants were able to make better use of available sunlight, moisture, nutrients and the soil itself. Their yields went up.”
Needham said the conventional method of seeding solely on the basis of pounds per acre is irrelevant. Instead, seed weight is the critical factor.
He said a well managed lot of certified wheat might hold 9,500 seeds per pound. On the other hand, a batch of bin run might have 15,000 or 20,000 seeds per lb.
A target of 500 to 600 heads per sq. yard is meaningless if the grower doesn’t have weight data for each seed lot, as well as uniform weight within the seed lot. Of course, heavier, plumper seeds are healthier and more likely to grow into a big crop.
Seed management is one way to control head count, but it’s also important to remember that too much nitrogen placed too close to the row at the time of seeding will promote tillering. Excessive tillering can produce far more heads than farmers want, even if the seed management program is spot on.
He said head count is merely an indicator of whether a farmer might grow a big crop.
To attain that big crop, there are four cornerstones that must be understood and implemented:
A good crop begins with uniform spread of residue from the previous year’s crop. However, the problem is that header sizes at the combine’s front end have quickly out-paced residue management equipment at the back end.
Needham said farmers shouldn’t buy a 42-foot header if they can only spread residue 35 feet. Those residue strips become dead zones that cool the soil in early spring.
Harrows can cause more problems than they solve because they knock down standing stubble and usually fail to spread the residue evenly, he added.
Farmers who consistently grow crops above their district average consistently pull soil samples every year, even when they have a good idea what the results will be.
Nitrogen is the most expensive input, but soil testing is the cheapest way to get the best return on nitrogen.
There should be no compromise on seed germination or vigour. Needham’s top producing clients always grow four to six varieties a year, which spreads the risk and harvest workload and keeps them on top of which varieties to discard and which new ones to add.
It’s important to select varieties proven to be appropriate to the area’s soil and climate conditions, but it’s also good to keep shaking up the mix.
Seed needs to be well cleaned with a gravity table, and every seed that goes into the drill should be uniformly treated with fungicide.
The best seed is of little value if it ends up laying on top of the ground, planted too deep or crowded into a clump with the neighbouring seeds. The goal is uniform spacing across the field.
“I frequently see fields which have 40 to 50 plants per yard of row in one row and 20 to 25 plants per yard of row in the next row,” said Needham.
“Upon closer examination, some of these differences were a result of the seeders not metering consistently, seeding depth differences and residue distribution problems. Based on my research, wheat needs to be seeded at a depth of one inch to ensure consistent emergence.”
Needham said the single most important thing a grower can do is improve nitrogen management. Most prairie farmers try to apply all their nitrogen at seeding time, he added, generally based on an historical yield goal.
“Guys feel that one-pass farming is the ultimate in good management. It’s not,” he said.
“We fail to achieve better yields across the board in all regions in all three provinces. It’s because of the faulty principle of fertilizing for a pre-determined goal at seeding time. We had excellent growing conditions for most producers in the Prairies in 2013, but most fields fell short of their potential because of that one-pass mindset.”
He said he has seen in-crop nitrogen applications later in the season double wheat yields.
“In one case, the grower had initially fertilized for a 40 bu. yield,” he said.
“Then the heat and rain and things started to develop into a really good growing season. If he hadn’t added nitrogen, he would have gotten the 40 bu. he initially anticipated. But he followed the principles of good nitrogen management and put down enough extra nitrogen for 80 bu. And 80 bu. per acre is the crop he harvested.”
Later season nitrogen also increases protein levels.
The only significant monetary cost is an extra pass with the sprayer to dribble on liquid nitrogen, but there is a significant cost in terms of hours spent scouting fields and pulling plant tissue samples.
In the end, if it doesn’t look like the weather is conducive to growing a big crop, then skip the extra nitrogen and save the money.
Needham said post-applied nitrogen should go on at jointing or the end of tillering. This timing does not promote further tillering or increase the risk of lodging.
Wheat crops that experience lodging usually have high head counts caused by high nitrogen rates placed close to the row at seeding time.
Field scouting should begin as soon as seed is in the ground, and weeds and volunteer crop should be sprayed down before wheat emerges.
Not only does this unwanted vegetation compete with the crop in the early stages for moisture and nutrients, but these early plants also serve as a host for insects that later move into the wheat crop.
“Field scouting should continue on a regular basis throughout the growing season in order to get the earliest possible jump on emerging weed, insect and plant disease problems,” he said.
“If you can’t find the time to thoroughly scout all fields in a timely manner, hire someone to do it for you. Scouting is the only way you can protect your investment.”
A well timed foliar fungicide can also give wheat yields a final boost. Some diseases can be controlled as their levels increase, while others, such as fusarium head blight, need to be prevented at flowering.
“There are three major fungicide timings, depending on variety, moisture, temperature, previous crops and tillage practices. Disease forecasting models help to fine tune the fungicide program in addition to assessing the different varieties you grow,” he said.
Tissue samples pulled at the four to five leaf stage, jointing or early heading can help determine which nutrients the plants can use.
If the sample is pulled later in the window, it will help tune the fertility program for the following year. Earlier tissue samples allow producers to make immediate in-season applications.
For more information, contact Needham at 270-785-0999 or visit www.needhamag.com.