Don't cheat your wheat

In the Midwest, wheat is one of the crops that most responds to intense management. Many of those management steps occur after wheat breaks dormancy in the spring.

When wheat comes out of dor­mancy, the first order of business is to check the stand. A general eval­uation will reveal if large areas did not survive winter and whether lat­er-emerging plants were able to fill in. Next is a proper stand count. A rule of thumb for maximum wheat yields is to have approximately 70 to 80 plants and tillers per square foot. Knowing your stand count not only indicates the health of your crop but can also be used to de­termine nitrogen timing. In drilled wheat with 7.5-inch rows, a square foot is 19.2 inches. If you find your­self without a tape measure, this is roughly shoulder width for many of us. Count each plant and its tillers in that square-foot area. If you count 70 to 80, you may choose to delay a nitrogen application. Fewer than this may necessitate an early nitrogen application to encourage additional tillers. Randomize where you take stand counts by throwing something like a hoop or a ball and counting wherever it lands.

Nitrogen management in wheat focuses on rates and timing. Historically, wheat fields received all of their N in one application following green-up. This is often still the case and can result in excellent yields. In some situations, though, a split application should be considered. When a field has a low tiller count and requires early nitrogen, it is probably too soon to apply everything. A split application helps prevent loss of nitrogen that will be needed later in the season. High rates applied early, combined with good growing conditions, can encourage vegetative growth to the point that plants lodge later in the season. Splitting the nitrogen appli­cations helps mitigate this poten­tial issue. Nitrogen rates generally should total around 90-100 pounds in the spring, and some producers have seen benefits of going as high as 120 pounds. Using an N source with a urease inhibitor to protect loss from volatility is advised. Sulfur should also be added in the form of ammonium sulfate or ammonium thiosulfate. Avoid elemental sulfur for wheat top-dress because it is not immediately available.

Wheat is not the only plant in your field that responds to nitrogen. Henbit, chickweed and other winter annual broadleaves will compete for fertilizer and other resources. Top yields will not occur if weeds are not controlled. Winter annuals may also be sprayed in the fall, but you still need to scout fields for garlic in the spring. Garlic is not terribly competitive, but it destroys quality and must be controlled.

Herbicides may be sprayed as a stand-alone pass or combined with liquid nitrogen. They may also be combined with insecticides to help control aphids and other insect pests. Aphids in wheat are best known for transmitting barley yellow dwarf. This yield-robbing disease is viral, so fungicides won’t help. You must control the disease vector, which is the aphid. Keep in mind, aphids also work on wheat fields in the fall. They often do more damage during that time peri­od, so do not solely rely on a spring management strategy.

Managing fungal disease is imperative to achieving top yields and sometimes, more importantly, top-quality wheat. Fungal diseases such as common rust and its more aggressive cousin, striped rust, can severely affect yields. Fusari­um head blight or “head scab” is extremely detrimental to yields but can also affect quality of wheat to the point of being unmarketable.

Fungicides have often been viewed as an optional input for wheat, but many producers now consider them table-stakes, espe­cially the later applications made for scab. The benefits to quality and test weight more than justify their use, and often, there is a yield increase as well.

Disease threat reports and scouting have been helpful tools when timing fungicides, with the exception of fusarium head blight, which can only be controlled with an application during the small window of flowering. New products allow a wider application window that begins at 50% head emergence. This earlier window not only makes it easier to achieve a timely appli­cation for scab, but it also helps with diseases that may already be present.

Raising high-yielding, high-qual­ity wheat involves several import­ant activities, and correct timing is imperative to success. MFA’s Crop-Trak scouting program is an excellent tool to help make sure these decisions are being made on schedule. Weather too often gives us a narrow window to get every­thing done, so being proactive is a must. Crop-Trak consultants and agronomists make weekly trips to the field, which helps make sure none of these steps are missed or ill-timed. Contact your local MFA for more information.

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Get the most out of new soybean herbicide traits

Soybean herbicide trait packages have changed quite a bit over the past 25 years.

SoybeanHerbicideEach year, MFA agronomists test the latest soybean seed traits at replicated plots throughout the region. No matter what varieties growers choose, however, planning an effective weed-control system is paramount to getting the most out of the technology. In 1996, Monsanto released the Roundup Ready trait, which immediately changed the game for how farmers managed post-emergence weeds. Nearly 15 years later, LibertyLink beans were introduced in 2009, giving producers the ability to spray glufosinate over the top of soybeans to control emerged, hard-to-kill weeds such as pigweed, marestail and morning glory.

The increase of herbicide resistance in weed populations over the past sev­eral years has led to more traits being added to the portfolio. In 2016, Xtend soybeans were introduced, which allowed for approved dicamba chemistries to be sprayed over emerged soybeans. Soon after, Enlist E3 beans were added to the portfolio. This trait meant approved 2,4-D herbicides could be sprayed over the top along with glufosinate. Now, for 2021, the most recent addition is XtendFlex technology to allow for approved dicamba products and glufos­inates to be applied.

There is a common theme among these traits—they’re designed to increase yields by improving crop safety and increasing effectiveness of weed control. With so many choices, how do you decide which one is best to use? For me, the answer is, “It depends.”

When used properly, any of these systems released in the past few years can be used to effectively control weeds. The traits are additional tools in the toolbox that we can use if necessary. 

Your choice in technology depends on several factors, and those factors may vary. That’s why it’s important to not only have a cropping plan but also a detailed, field-by-field cropping plan. The best way to control weeds is to prevent them from ever emerging. It all starts with an early cropping plan to identify the key issues that need to be managed during the growing season. Your local MFA team will work with you to identify your operation’s driver weeds, those that influ­ence yield or long-term weed management goals. Then, our agronomists will put a plan in place to effectively control those weeds. Oftentimes, determining your herbicide program will assist in the seed selection decision.

For example, there is no silver bullet on the market today that will control all of the driver weeds in MFA’s trade territory. Some require year-round management. Again, the easiest way to control weeds is to keep them from coming out of the ground. For weeds such as marestail, this means starting a weed-control program in the fall. The majority of marestail emerge in the fall and bolt in the spring. Once they reach the bolt­ing stage, or stem elongation, controlling them becomes significantly more difficult. An effective fall burndown will keep fields clean through the winter, making spring operations easier with a higher success rate. In a no-till situation, the next herbicide application has the capability of being more effective against smaller and fewer weeds. Even in a conventional-till situation, not having to work the ground as many times for weed con­trol saves time and money on equipment.

Even with all of the herbicide trait packages available today, if weeds are present once the beans emerge, control options are fewer, and significant yield losses are possible. Starting clean and using an effective residual followed by another residual 21 to 28 days later is the preferred method for keeping weeds in check all season long.

Selecting the right seed for the right acre is an important decision, but it is just one of the many decisions for a successful growing season. As a grower, your best investment is to reach out to your local MFA key account manager or MFA agronomist to start working on a cropping plan for next season. The greatest success comes to those who plan early and often. Effective, timely decisions have the highest rate of return. Your local MFA team is ready to take your operation to the next level.

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Seed treatments advance beyond the basics

In recent years, there has been a shift in how soybeans are treated. In the past, if a grower desired a seed treatment, he or she would have a small selection of options to be treated by the seed company, and it was typically delivered to the dealer with the treatment applied.

Now, many input suppliers such as MFA have invested in their own seed treaters. Seed is shipped untreated, and the dealer is responsible for ordering treatments and applying them. There also are many more treatment products available. These changes have made the process of choosing the right seed treatment much more complex.

These days, it’s standard practice to treat soybeans with a basic fungicide for early-season disease protection along with an insecticide to defend against early-season insects. But protection shouldn’t stop there. It’s important to keep in mind additional seed-treatment options for control of soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and sudden death syndrome (SDS) that have come on the market in recent years. Inoculants and other biological products need to be considered as well. Many newer products have mul­tiple active ingredients that cover several of these needs in a single package. While pre-mixed treatments can certainly simplify the selection process, it is important to understand what is in the package compared to the needs of the farm.

Understanding the basics of seed treatment is key to selecting the right product for your farm. There are more active ingredients available now along with blends of mul­tiple active ingredients. Identify the driver pests and the strengths and weaknesses of pest tolerance in the specific variety to be planted. Be aware of possible diseases in the upcoming season that could cause stand and yield losses. Early-season pathogens such as pythium, phytophthora and rhizoctonia can be controlled with seed treatments.

Perhaps the most important factor in controlling these pathogens is ensuring the treatment includes effective rates of an active ingredient or multiple active ingredients to control the targeted diseases. The same is true for choosing the right insecticide component. Insects of concern early in the season are grubs, maggots and the first generation of bean leaf beetles. The treatment you select should contain the right ingredients at the right rates to control these target insects.

Many new treatment products are available for control of SDS and SCN. Field history of these diseases must be considered when deciding whether to use these products. Soil samples can also help determine the presence and potential severity of SCN. Seed-treatment products such as Votivo and Clariva are available for SCN control. Illevo has become popular for control of SDS in recent years. Saltro is another new option for SDS control. MFA agronomists are looking closely at this product to gain better understanding of its efficacy.

Biological products should also be considered in a seed-treatment package. Innoculants con­taining rhizobia, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, have been commonly used for years. These products assist naturally occurring rhizobia in the soil. More recently, products with different microbes have become available. These may assist with root growth and help capture soil nutrients along with other benefits.

Innoculants continue to be improved, but it is important to understand the live and active rhizobia levels in the product to help gauge its effectiveness. When choosing biological seed treatments, first determine if the needs of the farm match up with the benefits that these prod­ucts provide.

At MFA’s crop research sites this year, we are testing several new seed-treatment products and evaluating new active ingredients, blends of ac­tive ingredients and biologicals. We look at these products throughout the season and finish with yield analysis. In our fungicide and insecticide trials, we evaluated soybean stands along with efficacy against driver insects and diseases. In the biological trials, we are determining how these products provide benefits to the soybeans both above and below ground.

Final yield is perhaps the most important aspect of these trials. With this extensive testing, our primary goals are to learn more about the new products available and to use that informa­tion to make the best recommendation for our growers.

With the increasing complexity in making seed-treatment selections, it is good to have expertise backed by research as part of the deci­sion-making process. The choice of seed treat­ment is an important component of your annual cropping plan. MFA’s key account managers, location managers and agronomists are prepared to advise growers in choosing the right products for their farms.

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Widen the window with fall fertilization

Compacted springs are begin­ning to feel like the new normal. Cold, wet weather often gives way just in time to allow a quick win­dow for critical spring operations. Applying fertilizer in the fall allows more of that window to be used for fieldwork and planting. Fall fertiliz­er applications also free up strained infrastructure, allowing more time to stage dry fertilizer and anhydrous ammonia. Additionally, fertilizer prices are often more attractive in the fall.

Typically, anhydrous ammonia is thought of as the problem in logistical bottlenecks. The loss of a pipeline and increased difficulty in securing rail transport have exacer­bated that situation. Few things are more frustrating than watching the planter sit while you wait for tanks or product to fill those tanks. Ap­plying nitrogen in the fall can help alleviate this stress. Some growers are not comfortable with putting all their nitrogen on in the fall, but there are ways to manage those concerns.

One popular strategy is to put one-half to two-thirds of a corn crop’s anticipated nitrogen needs down in the fall with a plan to side-dress or top-dress additional nitrogen during the growing season. This allows planting to start when conditions are favorable, even if spring ammonia supplies are tight. It also allows the final rate to be adjusted in-season based on growing conditions and what kind of weather has occurred since the fall application. MFA’s Nutri-Track N nitrogen-modeling program can be used to determine how much additional N is needed and can even create a variable-rate applica­tion prescription for applying it. Of course, N-Serve is still recommend­ed to hold nitrogen in the stable ammonium form longer.

Dry fertilizer can also be an ob­stacle in the spring. Larger tenders and high-capacity custom-appli­cation trucks create situations in which product leaves fertilizer plants as quickly as it comes in. Ex­ternal factors such as river flooding affect barge traffic and the ability to unload product, tightening these supply situations. Fall application takes pressure off the system, your operation and you. Phosphorus and potassium applied in the fall along with sulfur and zinc will be ready to go to work for you in the spring, and you won’t need to wait when spring weather doesn’t cooperate.

Another management strategy growing in popularity is to fertilize in front of beans, and fall is a good time to do that as well. Growers em­ploying MFA’s Nutri-Track program often apply two years’ worth of fertilizer in front of corn to supply that crop and the following soybean crop. Two-year applications are an­other way to help navigate logistical strains and increase efficiency. In recent years, however, yields have generally exceeded the applied fer­tilizer rates. In some instances, rates applied in front of the corn crop simply need to be increased, but an­other way to address this is to make up the difference in front of the soybean crop. Rather than applying increased rates of fertilizer that as­sume two large crops, growers can maintain their existing program but apply a flat rate of plant nutrients to help make up the difference after harvesting a larger-than-expected corn crop. A flat-rate rig or buggy can be used because soil variability has already been addressed with variable-rate application in front of the corn.

Often overlooked is the impor­tance of fall fertilizer for pastures and hay fields. Phosphorus, potassi­um and even some nitrogen applied in the fall help pastures repair damage incurred during summer grazing and haying and replace nutrients that were removed. Fall fertilizer encourages a denser stand and helps plants get ready for win­ter. A well-fertilized stand will also compete better with weeds and be ready to go in the spring when wet conditions do not allow fertilizer applications at green-up. Growers raising alfalfa should always plan to apply half of that crop’s nutrient removal in the fall. This allows for efficient use of potassium and prepares the crown and roots for winter.

Talk to your local MFA personnel about other strategies you can em­ploy to make fall fertilizer applica­tions work for you.

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Cover crops: Are they a real fix for water quality?

The use of cover crops has been growing over the past decade or so. But, do the benefits to the landscape from using covers in a cash-crop system actually outweigh the risks of changing practices and modifying operations? Cover crops need to pay dividends to both the individual grower and the landscape as a whole. The in-field advantages are much better known and documented than the effects on water quality and how it moves through the agricultural landscape. These landscape-level effects are critical in telling the story of mod­ern agriculture and how we are able to maintain top production while making positive steps in reducing the amount of agricultural inputs to surface waters.

To be successful in this quest, cover crops should decrease total water volume, suspended solids or soil leaving the field, and total phosphorus (P) and/or nitrates (N). The first two of these need to be measured, but we can make some educated assumptions when it comes to total water volume and soil loss. Cover crops increase surface cover and keep growing roots in the soil longer than cash crops alone. These additions will absolutely over time decrease soil loss and increase infiltration. But to what extent? Similarly, it’s reason­able to assume that the extra living plant uptake should reduce loss of N and P, but again, it is important to prove the extent to which the loss is mitigated.

For agriculture to remain “busi­ness as usual,” it’s critical to prove that cover crops can reduce losses of these pollutants. We need a success story to tell, and integrating cover crops can be a big one.

Recently, the Missouri Soybean Association and Missouri Corn Growers Association began a study that put water samplers on fields that were farmed using different practices. The samplers collect wa­ter any time there’s a runoff event. They track and measure total water volume, soil loss in suspended solids, N and P. For this study, these organizations used grant funding from EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 319 program, which specifically focuses on nonpoint sources of water pollution, such as agricultural runoff and soil erosion.

The information gathered from this research provides great insight about when losses are happening and what works to reduce total losses.

First, historical practices of grassed waterways and terraces seem to be working really well in re­ducing nutrient and sediment run­off. This is great news and proves the effectiveness of these practices that we’ve used for decades. Even when changing overall manage­ment to no-till or to include cover crops, it’s important to keep these structural practices in mind. When needed, nothing does a better job at stopping soil or nutrient loss than a good grass sod waterway.

Second, cover crops seem to be doing an overall good job at continuing to reduce nutrient and soil losses, especially in the spring. The large, intense rain events that come with spring not only hamper fieldwork, but they are also major contributors of those losses. Having a cover crop in place during these events can help. This also brings to mind some of the nutrient applica­tions made that time of year. Those nutrients can be especially vulner­able to losses and show up in the runoff. Minimize this risk by not applying right before large rainfalls, or move those surface applications to other times of the year when pre­cipitation is typically less intensive.

While it’s impossible to say that cover crops can reduce nutrient losses every time, it’s reasonable to say there are clear benefits. That conclusion is based on actual water sample data along with visual observations of field-level benefits. With the floods of 2019 fresh in our minds, the number of large rain events seem to be happening more often. For reasons both on and off the farm, cover crops are something to consider in row-crop agriculture.

For information about cover crop recommendations and how your cropping system can benefit, call me at 573-876-5246, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or con­tact your local MFA Agronomy team member.

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