Western winter wheat weathered winter well

Seeding winter wheat last fall was impossible in most regions. But in areas where growers were able to get seeding equipment into fields, it’s turned out well.

“Our agrologists have been out checking winter wheat fields all across the Prairies, and they report no problems with any of the fields. The crop survived very well and it’s looking healthy,” says Ken Gross, Ducks Unlimited agrologist in Brandon.

While that’s good news for every farmer who has winter wheat in the ground, the fact is that winter wheat acres have plummeted, admits Gross.

Alberta farmers put 122,000 acres into the soil last fall. Saskatchewan farmers did the best with 160,000 acres. Manitoba farmers trailed with only 30,000 acres seeded last fall. Manitoba had previously been a leader in winter wheat with a high of 640,000 acres.

Total acreage was 312,000 acres Prairie-wide, down dramatically from a high of 1.3 million acres in 2014-15. The past five years have seen a steady decline in all three prairie provinces.

This comes as bad news for Ducks Unlimited, traditionally a major financial backer of Canada’s winter wheat program dating back to the late 1980s. DU supports fall-seeded crops because early spring growth of any field crop provides predator protection for waterfowl. Vast green acres in May make it difficult for predators to find duck nests.

Only six years ago, winter wheat had been documented as the most profitable crop on the Prairies. Those were the proverbial “good ol’ days” with 1.3 million acres. So where have all those acres gone?

“There are a number of factors at play here. Some new spring wheat varieties have arrived and they yield higher than winter wheat. Some of the winter wheat acres have been replaced by the new hybrid ryes. Nearly 100,000 acres of hybrid rye went in the ground in Manitoba last fall,” says Gross, adding that those are farmers who were already familiar with the benefits of growing fall-seeded crops. They simply switched to a more profitable fall-seeded crop.

“We’ve had some horrific falls lately. When guys could finally get out on the field, it was a question of combining their standing crop or seeding winter wheat. Well, which are you going to do? If you’re running the combine, you’re putting money in the bank. If you’re seeding instead, then you’re gambling. Now, for the guys who got their crop off in August, it worked out very nicely.”

Gross says now that spring is here, nitrogen is needed for this fresh crop. He says more and more growers are putting fertilizer down at seeding to give the plants a quicker spring start and relieve some of the spring pressure on the operational side of things. He says some are putting down more than half the total required with the seed.

“We get these wet springs when we can’t get on the land to fertilize winter wheat. When it dries up enough to move, then we’re busy with our spring crop, so the winter wheat is left behind. Or else it’s so dry in the spring that when we broadcast, the fertilizer just sits there on the surface. But if we get some fertility down at seeding, then you know you’re covered at springtime.

“Winter wheat doesn’t produce a seed head until springtime. Really early in the spring when it starts greening up, that’s when it produces that seed head. So if you have some fertility down already, you’ll grow a nice healthy seed head and optimize your yield.

“If you didn’t put fertility down last fall, you should get out there soon as you can get on the field and do it, because you’re losing yield every day. It’s still pretty muddy, so it may be a while before guys can get out there. The guys who put it down in the fall are smiling.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was reluctance by researchers and farmers to put fertilizer down with the seed. The fear was that too much early growth in the fall would weaken the plant and contribute to winterkill. Gross, who was already a DU agrologist in those early years, recalls that note of caution regarding fall fertility and promptly dismisses it.

“In all my years, I’ve never seen winterkill because of early growth. Never. What I have seen is producers compromising their yield by not applying fertility at seeding. Three things can happen. First, springtime is wet so you can’t apply. Second, springtime is dry so the fertility never gets down to the roots. Third, even in a perfect spring, your crop does not get the necessary early jump because fertility isn’t there.

“We have a project going right now with Winter Cereals Manitoba, the provinces Ag Action program and Ken Greer out at Western Ag. We’re looking at different fertility regimes to maximize fertility. We’re recommending producers put down more potash and then pull back a bit on the nitrogen.

“We had good results last year. It was really dry last spring, so winter wheat was slow to start. They still averaged 80 bushels per acre. Provincial average for winter wheat last year was 60 bushels. The balanced fertility is the key factor. It’s not just nitrogen.”

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