Wheat production’s untapped potential catches eye of Canadian specialist

Wheat growers had an opportunity to hear about production from the view of a Canadian specialist who encouraged them to always have an open mindset.

During Crop Quest’s Grower Focus meeting on Feb. 3 at the United Wireless Arena in Dodge City, Kansas, Peter Thompson, known as “Wheat Pete,” told growers it was up to them treat wheat production like they do other crops. Thompson has a farm near Ontario, Canada, and he is a former wheat specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Thompson is the host of the podcast Wheat Pete’s Word, and resident agronomist of RealAgriculture. Too often growers have a mindset that “corn is the king, soybean is the queen and wheat is the runt of the litter.”

The principles of wheat production are generally applicable around the world, but adjustments are key to what turns the crop into a profitable one. “Everything I say means nothing at all unless you take it to your own farm operation.”

That was an overarching theme throughout his presentation as he told growers that he planned to learn as much from them as they did from him and to make sure they take time to interact and learn not about production in Kansas but in other parts of the world.

Regardless of where one lives one of the most oft-repeated phrases he hears is “we’ve always done it that way” or “we’ve never done it that way,” he said. “Always and never go together.” But he said that needs to change to “I think there’s a better way to improve.”

Some of his takeaways was that farmers take sunlight, carbon dioxide and water and use those three things to make a product people can eat. Food production also requires photosynthesis. Thompson says one trend has been more carbon dioxide is available today than many years ago. That can make a difference in wheat and soybean production, depending on the region a farm is located on, he said.

Drought continues to bear watching but Thompson believes that even with the challenges wheat growers in particular need to work with crop advisors to see how they may be able to tweak production. As growers and consultants learn more they need to expand beyond a regional basis. He is intrigued by research in Brazil where researchers have taken a sunflower gene and incorporated into wheat as a way to possibly boost drought resistance. In Canada, researchers have been studying the carbon cycle as it relates to wheat and they remark about the importance of having soil that is biologically active.

Thompson says there are growers and crop consultants who are looking into solar radiance.

What he has gleaned is that water, organic matter and solar energy are all partners.

“Without moisture, wheat won’t germinate. I get that,” Thompson said. “But using and understanding the others can help.”

The world’s highest wheat yields are in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. What is unique about those countries is they are surrounded by water and water moderates temperatures. Many growers are astonished to learn that in the UK, wheat crops that exceed 200 bushels per acre are often on fields that receive about 22 inches of rain on average each year, about the equivalent of some regions in Kansas. Those regions are also far from the equator, which is also similar to Kansas.

He encouraged growers to take part in wheat tours and see those other regions of the United States and around the world so they can learn from a more diverse group of producers. The goal is not to raise 258-bushel an acre wheat, he said, but to glean information they can take back to their Kansas farms.

Thompson says one of his goals was to help Kansas growers better understand how to boost their own production by understanding its timing while taking into account the variables.

In the High Plains, producers have different philosophies about when to plant their crop. He knows some farmers will plant in early September and others will go as late as mid-November, Thompson said, and that range can also limit the wheat’s potential. Based on studies he has seen from Kansas State University, in southwest Kansas, for example, the ideal time to plant is about Sept. 25.

“Seeding date works,” Thompson said. “If you seed earlier (rather than waiting) you get higher yields. You can go too early, though, but there are ways to manage through it.”

The reason he likes finding the “sweet spot” for planting wheat is that it can take advantage of moisture. If a grower plants his crop on Sept. 23 and he gets rain on Oct 5, then his crop will be far better off than if he planted on Oct. 5 and the rain fell on the same day.

Following the ideal planting date can mean as much as a 3.5 bushels per acre per day increase in yields when the producer enters the field to harvest in June. “The risk of low yield from planting too early is much lower than waiting too late.”

He told growers a healthy field can help fight the “green bridge” of disease and pest pressures. If aphids are a concern, for example, treatments can be made in the fall.

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Thompson also told growers to evaluate their seed rates. An earlier planting date may be able to reduce some rates plus the end result is a healthy plant that can adjust in a dry climate.

Resist the temptation to plant the crop and forget about it until spring. “For tillering you need to get out of your truck and scout.” An earlier planting date may help the grower to see tillers quicker. Rarely does a crop have too many tillers with early planting.

Also, earlier planted wheat tends to be taller, which can mean more lodging and that needs to be taken into account, too. Thompson likes to see 60 viable stems per foot but he has seen that climb to 100 stems per foot with added moisture.

He also likes narrower rows and many growers in southwest Kansas are in the 10-inch range for row width, which is adequate. They may be able to shorten under 10 inches but the key for growers is grain fill and pollination. Another important consideration is weeds. Additional canopy helps with weed control, which has quickly gained the attention of farmers, particularly corn and soybean producers.

Thompson also encouraged growers to make sure their grain drills are set right.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].