Agronomist looks at challenges to winter wheat production
By Jennifer M. Latzke
This summer's drought has wheat farmers looking to maximize every bit of profit from their fields this coming season.
Which is why many attended the 2012 Bayer ProfitMaximizer Wheat Summit in Wichita, Kan., Aug. 1. Phil Needham of Needham Ag Technologies, LLC, explained that farmers can't control the weather, but they can control other variables that can squeeze every ounce of potential out of the 2013 High Plains winter wheat crop.
Needham is a promoter of intensive crop management systems and uses practical experience with research to help farmers increase their yields and their profits. He said there are several things that farmers can do today to make 2013 a great crop year.
Most of his list included tasks that many farmers overlook. For example, the necessity of controlling volunteer wheat and weeds as early in the season as possible, or the need for proper fertility plans and uniform nitrogen application.
Waiting to control weeds loses valuable moisture, especially in no-till systems, Needham said. Likewise, timing is also key to nitrogen application and uniformity. Needham explained that if farmers aren't careful with their nitrogen plans and their planting dates they could set themselves up for a huge lodging problem down the road. And if farmers are planning to plant wheat into their failed corn acres, they may be able to skip fall applications of nitrogen since the fields may have residual left over. "Lodging means yield loss," he said. "Could be 10, 30, even 50 percent depending on the stage."
No-till farmers should also watch their residue distribution at harvest. "Heavy piles of dense residue bands are tough to establish a stand, and emergence is slow," Needham said. "Wider headers on the front of combines are fine, but we need research and development into the back of the combine. Even for conventional tillage. We need to spread that residue better because of the nutrients it contains."
Getting a good uniform stand is also a combination of planting the right seed at the right depth, Needham said. Needham advised growers to get out of the tractor regularly when planting and check their seeding depths.
"It's easy to add weight to a drill to get to the proper one inch depth," he said. "If you drop that depth to 2 inches, you decrease yield by 10 bushels per acre. If you drop it to 4 inches, you decrease yield by 17 bushels per acre." He also advised wheat farmers to begin planting their fields using seed population counts, rather than the typical pounds per acre measurement.
In selecting varieties, farmers should plant at least three or four different varieties to spread their harvest timing based on maturity, and to spread their risk based on pest and disease susceptibility characteristics.
Finally, disease and pest control is the top of the list of maximizing yield in the field, Needham explained. Particularly critical is planning ahead for fungus by treating seed with fungicides and or applying foliar applications as needed and in a timely fashion. However, farmers who rely solely on applying foliar fungicides at the first sign of rusts may be too late, Needham said.
"Fungicides are only effective until the fungus grows in the leaf," he said. "Once it grows, your chances of control go down." In seven to 10 days one spore brought in on the wind can grow exponentially in a field and troubles can snowball, he said.
"Most fungicides are not good as a curative," Needham said. "They work better as a protective. You have to apply prior to the spores landing in your field for better control. Especially controlling stripe and leaf rusts." Also, farmers must be sure to use nozzles on their sprayers that are designed for fungicides, specifically nozzles that are configured to spray forward and backward to get better coverage. Good coverage means good suppression, he said.
Foliar application of insecticides to control aphids is another way to combat the Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, which is spread by aphids. Seed treatments, he said, can bring 11 percent higher stand emergence rates.
"You have to scout and control aphids because they are a vector of Barley Yellow Dwarf," Needham said. "You'll see small yellow regions that radiate outwards in your fields. Some whole fields may be infested. But you'll generally see a circle in the field." Needham said that university thresholds for treatment are too high; instead he uses a threshold of five aphids per square foot.
"It is cheap to control aphids, and many times you can do so at the same time as a herbicide application," Needham said.
Building high yields is really a combination of creating the potential by selecting the right genetics and seed quality; establishing a solid stand; and a good fertility practice, Needham said. Farmers can protect that potential with proper nitrogen application and timing and following up with herbicide, fungicide and insecticide applications as needed.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.