Elite wheat

Winter wheat was the first crop Wyatt Harris planted when he began farming on his own in 2007. He was 17, a senior in high school. The crop failed miserably.

“Temperatures got down into the low 20s sometime that May,” Harris said. “The wheat was all headed out and froze. What little was left, the armyworms took out the rest.”

It was a disappointment, but not a deterrence. The young farmer continued to include some wheat in rotation with corn and soybeans on his farm, which is headquartered near Hepler, Kan. When the weather didn’t cooperate and prices were down, wheat mainly served as a cover crop or grazing for his family’s beef cattle. In good years, Harris harvested it for grain.

“For years, we grew just a couple of hundred acres of wheat mainly to graze. If it turned out OK, we’d harvest it,” Harris said. “Then I started monkeying around with wheat as a cover crop. We ended up raising really good wheat, and the price came up, so it’s become a staple crop for our farm.”

Three years ago, buoyed by favorable markets, improved yields and new crop protection technology, Harris decided to dramatically increase his wheat acreage and the intensity of his management. He grew nearly 1,900 acres of soft red winter wheat in 2022—a little less than half of his total row-crop acre­age. He’s planning about the same amount for 2023.

“Wheat really fits well in our rotation, and we’ve got the right climate for it here,” Harris said. “It’s like a cash cover crop, al­though I hate to say that, especially since we manage it for high­er yields. It also spreads our risk. Some years, when weather is on the drier side, wheat might be the best crop we’ve got.”

He’s not the only one putting more emphasis on wheat production these days. High demand and good prices have garnered the attention of growers who had previously cut back or cut out wheat from their rotation. The war in Ukraine, a top wheat-producing country, combined with low global supplies and drought in key wheat-growing areas have all contributed to the recent upswing in the market.

The USDA projects the average price in 2022 for wheat to be $10.75 per bushel, which is more than double the 2020 price. Back in March, when Harris was mak­ing a planned nitrogen pass, wheat was trading for nearly $13 a bushel. At press time, prices had dropped to around $7.60 with news of a Ukraine-Russia trade agreement that would provide a safe corridor for wheat to make its way out of the Black Sea region.

“I believe wheat acres will be up this fall if markets stay like this,” Harris said. “Some farmers who don’t traditionally grow any wheat may dabble in it, but I think the biggest acreage gains are going to come from growers just expanding their acres, like we did. The more money that there potentially is to be made, the more guys are willing to spend.”

While price certainly factored into his decision to grow more wheat this year, Harris said his management practices are just as intense when markets are more moderate. Ultimately, he aims for making 100 bushels per acre, a goal he often achieves. A wet spring kept him from reaching that target this year, with wheat yields averaging 75 to 80 bushels per acre.

“In the area I cover in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas, 100-bushel wheat isn’t out of the question,” said MFA Staff Agronomist Shannon McClintock. “There are some pockets that are producing that kind of yield consistently. It just depends on the year. I think high commodity prices will encourage growers to better manage their wheat to reach that mark more rather than just throwing it out there and seeing what happens.”

To achieve higher-yielding wheat on his farm, Harris is attentive to key production factors that include proper planting, crop protection, fertilization and har­vest timing. A customer of AGChoice in Hepler, he is enrolled in the MFA Nutri-Track program for precision nutrient management and Crop-Trak, MFA’s full-service scouting and consulting service.

“It’s all about efficiency,” Harris said. “We do whatever we can to push yield goals and make our margins better. But there’s a stewardship side, too. We don’t want to apply more inputs than the crop needs. It’s wasteful, and it’s not cost-effective.”

PLANT PROPERLY

Many practices that contribute to a great wheat crop happen before and during planting, such as proper seeding methods, rates and dates, said McClintock, who works closely with Harris in all aspects of his operation.

Careful variety selection is one of those practices. Like other cash crops, not all wheat varieties are created equal. McClintock said growers should compare disease ratings and make sure varieties are adapted to their soil, environment and production practices. Harris planted all his 2021-22 wheat acres in MFA 2633, which is suited for high-management production.

“Growers who create the potential for success at the start are the ones who will likely achieve the most profits at harvest,” McClintock said. “It’s important to know how many seeds per pound you have. If you purchase new certified seed, that num­ber is on the seed tag. If you’re using bin-run wheat, we recom­mend you get it tested for germination and a seed-per-pound analysis. Your planting rate is based on that information.”

For higher-yielding wheat, McClintock said the goal is to have 75 heads per square foot, which means a planting rate of 1.2 to 1.5 million seeds per acre. Drilling or planting with an air seed­er is recommended over broadcasting for a more uniform stand.

“Depth is important,” McClintock added. “You want the seed to be at least an inch deep and planted into moisture for good emergence. Be sure it’s not too deep, or the wheat will have a hard time coming up. Too shallow will make it more susceptible to winterkill.”

The ideal planting date for winter wheat in MFA territory ranges from mid-September to mid-October. Earlier planting can put wheat at risk from insects and certain diseases. Late planting may result in less tillering, more winter injury and lower yield.

Harris, whose farm is nearly 100% no-till, leans toward the earlier planting date for his winter wheat, if conditions allow. He typically uses an air seeder to drill the wheat into standing corn stubble, but he has also had great success with growing wheat behind soybeans if they were harvested early enough.

“I like to start planting in the middle of September, even when we’ll keep the wheat for grain,” Harris said. “Seed treat­ments are one reason we can get away with that now versus the old days when we had to wait till after the Hessian fly-free date, which is usually the middle of October. It costs a little bit more, but I like to get that extra growth in the fall.”

PROTECT STRATEGICALLY

From the start, a winter wheat crop is threatened by weeds, insects and diseases. Protecting the crop, both before and after planting, is essential to achieving high yields, McClintock said.

“Fall weed control is very important,” he said. “You need some sort of burndown in front of wheat. There are spring options, but you’ve got to at least get the main weeds in the fall. If not, you start decreasing your chances of higher yields.”

Before drilling wheat, Harris said he burns down with gly­phosate plus Finesse, a herbicide that provides pre-emergence and postemergence management of broadleaf weeds and yield-robbing grasses.

“It works really well and keeps the wheat clean all winter,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of yield drag associated with winter annuals in wheat, even if they don’t look that bad.”

Fungicide and insecticide seed treatments are also important, providing a cost-effective way to protect young wheat plants from common fungal soil-borne diseases such as pythium, rhi­zoctonia and fusarium rot and pests such as aphids, cutworms and Hessian fly. Later in the season, foliar fungicide applica­tions help prevent diseases such as common rust and its more aggressive cousin, striped rust, as well as fusarium head blight or “head scab,” which is extremely detrimental to yields.

“In the past, fungicides may have been viewed as optional for wheat, but most growers now consider them essential, especial­ly if they’re looking for better yields,” McClintock said. “And it goes beyond yield. The benefits to quality and test weight more than justify their use.”

Depending on disease pressure, Harris usually makes at least two fungicide applications at critical times in the crop’s growth—one at flagleaf and one at flowering. If early diseases are detected, he may also apply a fungicide at green-up.

Regular scouting helps detect any problems before they can rob yield, especially as the crop comes out of dormancy in late winter. Insect pests and diseases can come on fast, and timing is critical for preventive measures. For example, fusarium head blight can only be controlled with an application during the small window of flowering, although new fungicides such as Miravis Ace allow a wider application window that begins at 50% head emergence.

“Miravis Ace is one of the reasons, other than the market, that we really reintroduced wheat back into the operation,” Harris added. “Head scab is a major issue here every year. Any time you get moisture at flowering, you run the risk of head scab, and we always seem to have moisture at flowering. The old products had a very narrow window. Miravis Ace opened that window, and it’s changed the game for head scab fungicides.”

NOURISH CORRECTLY

Wheat exhibits a robust response to proper fertilization. While phosphorus and potassium are critical crop nutrients, adequate nitrogen levels must be available to the wheat plant at all phases of development. Splitting N applications generally improves use efficiency.

Harris’ fertility program begins in the fall with an application of P and K along with some nitrogen, based on soil-test results, and then continues with two passes of nitrogen in the spring—one at green-up, based on population, and one at jointing, when the bulk of the season’s N will be applied.

“Typical nitrogen management for wheat here in southeast Kansas is to apply DAP in the fall, which gives you 25 to 30 units of N. That generally will get us through the winter,” Mc­Clintock explained. “It’s all about tiller management. You don’t want to over-tiller, and you don’t want to under-tiller.”

Sulfur is another nutrient that often gets neglected in wheat production, he added. Sulfur helps improve wheat quality and makes the crop more responsive to nitrogen. A general rule of thumb is to apply 1 unit of sulfur for every 10 bushels of yield, McClintock said

“When shooting for higher-yielding wheat, sulfur can be a limiting factor,” he said. “We recommend adding it along with nitrogen at the jointing pass. Sulfur is just as mobile in the soil as nitrogen, and the plants need it around the same time.”

HARVEST SWIFTLY

The best management in the world won’t do any good if the crop isn’t harvested in a timely manner, McClintock said. Wheat is less forgiving than other crops when left in the field. Weathering, shattering, lodging and other factors can add up to significant losses. Growers should harvest the crop as soon as possible to protect yield and maintain good-quality grain.

“We tend to start harvesting wheat when it’s a little greener than some would like,” Harris said. “If the sun is shining, and it’s the perfect weather, I’m going to go cut wheat, even if we’re taking a little moisture dock. I’m probably going to lose less shrink there than on the back end if the wheat stays in the field. Inevitably, we’ll get a big rain event about harvest time, and the quality just starts to dwindle from then on. Better to get it out when you can.”

Plus, the sooner the wheat gets out of the field, the sooner double-crop soybeans can go in. If conditions allow, Harris is typically chasing the combine with the planter. The ability to double crop is one of the major benefits of including wheat in rotation, he said.

“Well-managed wheat, even when the price goes down, is still going to make sense to grow, especially if you plant a double-crop bean behind it,” Harris said. “It’s like any other crop. The best way to make money is to raise as much of it as you can.”

For more information on best man­agement practices for wheat, visit with the agronomy professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.

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