Pay attention to trouble spots for higher wheat yields

A crop adviser says growers need to consider soil fertility and urges regular soil tests to achieve maximum yield potential.  |  File photo

RIDGETOWN, Ont. — Canada may not lie within a “Goldilocks zone” where wheat yields can top 200 bushels per acre, but lessons may still be learned from those regions.

A wheat expert from England who now runs a crop advisory company in Kentucky talked about the opportunities at the Southwest Agriculture Conference in Ridge-town in early January.

“Our challenge is to find why some regions in your fields are making 200 bu. — I suspect that’s the case — when the field average was 120,” Phil Needham said.

Needham was referring to Ontario’s record yields in 2016. At 120 bu. per acre in many areas, Ontario growers were delighted with their yields, but the crop adviser feels there’s potential for improvement.

“Most of the farmers from where I come from, about 100 miles northwest of London, would be disappointed if they don’t make 150 or 160 bu.,” he said.

That standard was achieved in at least one Ontario field last year, he added.

Farmers often aim for 700 to 800 heads per sq. metre in high production regions, but Needham said Ontario farmers should ratchet that back to 500 to 600. It’s a more realistic number, given the shorter growing season and other climatic considerations.

The stand, regardless of head number, needs to be uniform with attention paid to trouble spots to boost their potential.

Needham also supports in-row phosphorus and suggested farmers try using test strips to evaluate sulfur.

Proper seed bed preparation for wheat should begin as the previous crop is combined, he said. Residue, including chaff, should be spread evenly.

The technology at the back of combines has improved significantly in recent years, he added, but it hasn’t caught up to the capabilities at the front end.

“There’s really no point in putting a 40-foot header on a combine that only spreads to 30 or 35 feet,” he said. “I suggest that’s one of the weak links.”

Needham is a no-till advocate, but he said there are some situations in which tillage is required. Tools such as wheel cultivators and vertical tillage units may encourage uniform emergence.

He also likes air seeding because it allows farmers to try variable rate application of nutrients or plant more than one variety in a field.

Needham said seed placement is another area where there’s potential for improvement.

Farmers in high-yielding regions of the world plant in four to five inch rows rather than the 7.5 inch row width common in North America. He cited a North Carolina State University study conducted by Randy Wiesz that showed a 10 percent advantage to moving from 7.5 to four inch rows.

Placement within the rows and consistent depth are also important. Electronic meters for the seed openers are a newer technology that can result in a five to 10 percent yield advantage, and farmers can adjust down pressure and keep their seed grain box partially full at all times to help maintain consistent depth.

Standability is important. Rather than using a growth regulator to maintain shorter straw lengths, Needham said farmers should choose the right varieties to achieve the same end.

Sufficient soil fertility is essential. Needham advocates for regular soil tests and said farmers should consider tissue tests to identify instances in which nutrients are present but not being accessed by the plants.

“There are a lot of growers that want 100 to 120 bu. wheat, but they’re only fertilizing for 80 to 90 bu.,” he said.

Nitrogen, delivered in a split application, can help boost yields.

Needham said Mike Solari, a former wheat yield record holder, has applied nitrogen up to seven times on New Zealand’s South Island.

The use of fungicides to suppress disease and keep leaves green for longer is also important.

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