Dryness challenges winter wheat seeding

The arrival of August means harvest will soon be underway for growers across the West.

For winter wheat producers, it also means that the ideal window for seeding winter cereals is just around the corner.

Paul Thoroughgood, a winter wheat producer and regional agrologist with Ducks Unlimited, said juggling harvest operations with fall seeding can pose a challenge.

But like most things on the farm, a little bit of planning and preparation goes a long way.

“I think there are challenges no matter when you are planting,” said Thoroughgood, who has grown winter cereals on his farm south of Moose Jaw, Sask., for the past 20 years.

“As farmers, we have learned how to deal with spring seeding challenges. The challenges related to fall seeding are sometimes a little bit different so first-time growers will often struggle with getting seed in the ground when they are thinking about harvest….”

“For someone who is thinking about growing winter wheat for the first time, or the first time in a few years, talking to an experienced grower … might really help them to avoid some of those little pitfalls.”

In general, the window for planting winter wheat lasts for about four weeks, from late August to late September.

Optimal timing is usually the first or second week of September.

Thoroughgood said preparation is key. In other words, winter wheat growers need to have their ducks in a row. They can start by making sure seeding equipment is cleaned, tuned up and ready to go at a mo-ment’s notice, Thoroughgood said.

Pull the machines out, make sure they are serviced and have seed on hand.

That way, planting can begin immediately when there is even a short break in harvest operations.

Fields that were harvested this spring and did not get seeded due to excess moisture might present an ideal opportunity for winter wheat production this fall, Thoroughgood added.

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As always, it is important to ensure that fields have a few inches of stubble to trap snow and provide protection during the cold winter months.

Fields that have been tilled to manage residue, or those that have been cut too close to the ground, are generally not a good fit for winter wheat.

Most farmers are programmed to seed crops into good moisture, something that many prairie farms lack this fall.

But Thoroughgood said growers who were thinking about planting winter wheat shouldn’t be deterred by dry soil conditions.

His advice?

Seed into dry dirt if you have to.

“As far as seeding into dry soil is concerned, what we recommend is: ‘go seed.’

“There is always a desire by many producers to wait until we have ideal moisture before they seed winter wheat, but in most cases, that’s the worst thing you can do.

“That is a real big error that many, many farmers make when they try to grow winter wheat for the first time.”

Thoroughgood said winter wheat that is unable to use existing soil moisture for germination will almost always receive enough moisture from above to get a start in the fall.

Seeds that are planted about a half inch into dry soil need very little rain to get started.

Seeds can be placed a bit deeper if soil moisture is available, but seeding depth for winter wheat should not exceed one inch.

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Dale Hicks, chair of the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission, said dry conditions can have a negative impact on winter wheat acreage. But it is too early to say whether farmers will seed less winter wheat this fall.

He said the 2017 harvest is shaping up to be early in many parts of Western Canada, and that could bode well for winter cereal plantings.

Hicks said more growers have been expressing interest in winter cereals, now that dry conditions have returned to the Prairies.

Relative to spring cereals, winter wheat is less prone to yield loss caused by heat stress because it generally begins flowering a few weeks earlier than spring wheat and is more developmentally advanced by the time the hot days of July roll around.

Earlier flowering also reduces the risk of fusarium infection, said Thoroughgood.

He said the winter wheat harvest on his farm was about 50 percent complete as of Aug. 4.

Harvested crops are producing 50 to 55 bushels per acre this year, a yield that he described as quite good, given the lack of rainfall.

Winter wheat is a relatively small crop in Saskatchewan.

Insured acreage under Saskatchewan Crop Insurance averaged about 335,000 acres between 2011 and 2016.

During that period, the highest annual insured acreage was 670,000 acres in 2012 and the lowest was 198,000 in 2015.

Hicks said extremely dry conditions can make it difficult for seeding implements to properly penetrate the soil.

Seeding into parched fields can also result in lumps or chunks of soil that do not provide sufficient contact with planted seeds.

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But as long as growers don’t leave a messy, lumpy seedbed, winter wheat will usually get a decent start in the fall, even if soil moisture is less than ideal at the time of seeding, Hicks said.