Plant wheat before frost is out?

RED DEER — Seeding wheat as early as mid-February may soon be a reality for some farmers. Even mid-March might be possible for producers on the northern Prairies.

While researcher Graham Collier cautions against seeding that early now, his preliminary work is showing solid results.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking when you’re seeding so early. There’s a lot of risk involved in it,” said Collier, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta. “But, so far, it’s looking very, very positive.”

Collier spoke at the Cereals Innovation Symposium held in Red Deer, discussing his preliminary findings on research on the effects of seeding wheat extremely early.

Collier has test plots in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and is testing winter wheat with spring-type characteristics as well as cold-resistant varieties.

Instead of relying on the temperature outside, Collier and his research team are measuring soil temperature to know when to seed.

He said they planted when the soil was at least 0 C or higher, and found the crop did best in the range of 2 C to 6 C. They seeded on Feb. 16, 2016, in Lethbridge and March 29, 2016, in Edmonton.

“After we seeded, air temperatures in Lethbridge went as low as -10 C and there were a total of 37 nights where it was below 0 C,” he said. “Despite those temperatures, we had no yield loss.”

Collier figures they were able to seed so early because the climate is changing. He said predictions show the Prairies will get warmer and drier, which means longer growing seasons with less consistent rainfall.

“A part of seeding ultra-early allows growers to harness that soil moisture that’s there early in the year,” he said. “In years to come, it might be about growing our crops based on the moisture in the soil rather than the moisture that’s coming through the growing season.”

Collier added there are other benefits to seeding early, such as the crop being able to better compete against weeds because they are further developed by the time weeds sprout. As well, the crop will be able to take in more sunshine.

“There are all these opportunities to avoid those temperature changes as we move to a drier, hotter summer,” he said. “We can shift our growing periods and our grain-filling period so we can preserve or increase our yield, potentially.”

While these ultra-early methods may not be ready to implement now, farmers can still take advantage of seeding earlier, even if it’s by a few days or a couple of weeks, according to Ross McKenzie, a soil scientist and consultant.

He noted that frost-free periods, on average, have increased by 15 days since 1950 and that the growing season overall has increased by 14 days. The numbers are based on Canadian government climate data.

“You want to farm for the climate you have now,” he said. “Look at your frost-free period, growing-degree days, soil precipitation and see how that’s changed.”

As for Collier’s research, he said the team will continue to test plots for the next couple of years. They’ll also look at how the crops react to fertilizer and herbicide applications.

“The fact that we can do this without cold-resistant varieties means it’s going to be that much easier to adopt at a farm scale,” he said.

By the end of 2022, Collier hopes to have a management package in place for farmers to use. It would include recommendations on what varieties to seed ultra-early, as well as recommendations on fertilizer and herbicide applications, seeding rates and depths.

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