Banding nutrients at planting can increase wheat profitability.
By Jason Jenkins
With more than 13,000 acres in their farming portfolio, Nick and Matt Scharf don’t experience many “firsts.” The steadying hand of experience has assured that these brothers from central Saskatchewan are ready for just about anything markets or Mother Nature want to throw at them.
That is, until last year, when something happened that had never happened in the entire history of their farm. “We didn’t plant a single field to wheat in 2016,” says Nick, a resident of Perdue. “We used to go half wheat and half everything else—canola, peas, lentils—but last year, the price was just too low.”
Whether winter or spring, red or white, hard or soft, wheat prices have taken a decidedly downward trend during the past five years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that average prices have fallen nearly 46%, from $7.60 in 2012 to only $4.11 in 2016.
With low commodity prices remaining on the horizon, wheat producers must find new efficiencies in their operations to maintain profitability. That means re-examining every input and management technique.
Banding Starter Nutrients
One effective means of cutting costs while still increasing wheat yields is to apply a band of starter nutrients at planting. “From as far south as you can farm in Corpus Christi, Texas, to about as far north as Peace River, Alberta, the vast majority of farmers will put starter fertilizer in the row at seeding time and have good luck doing it,” says Phil Needham, agronomist and owner of Needham Ag Technologies based in Calhoun, Kentucky. “We’ve done a lot of replicated trials through the years that prove its benefits, especially in later-planted no-till wheat.”
Recommendations for starter fertilizer depend on the growing region, soils and type of wheat being planted. However, placing phosphorus in the row approximately 1.5 inches below the seed is an effective practice for all wheat producers, says Gene Breker, new markets specialist with the AGCO-AMITY joint venture in Fargo, North Dakota, manufacturers of seeding equipment like the Sunflower® 9830NT high-speed drill.
“We recommend starter phosphate and potash in the row. Then it’s right there in the root zone rather than the plants having to randomly run across it,” Breker says. “You get early pickup, especially by placing it off to the side or a little below where the roots grow.”
Needham also encourages growers to place phosphorus in the row when seeding cereals, which can increase phosphorus availability and uptake, especially in cooler no-till soils and those with lower soil phosphorus levels. University of Minnesota research shows that banding phosphorus can reduce application rates up to 50%.
“The phosphorus helps with early plant health, better tillering and root development,” Needham says. “We’re putting down about 0.5 pounds of P2O5 per bushel of yield, so if a producer is targeting 100-bushel wheat, he will need to band about 100 pounds per acre of a product such as 11-52-0.”
“Generally speaking, if you’re in the northern half of the Dakotas and all of Canada, you can put nitrogen down when planting winter wheat,” says Breker, adding that a band placed 3 inches to the side and 1.5 inches deeper than the seed planted in 6- to 8-inch rows is highly effective.
“Those planting spring wheat also can apply nitrogen at seeding time because it doesn’t have time to leach before active plant uptake occurs,” he says.
For most winter wheat across the country, Needham normally advises producers to split their nitrogen application, fertilizing at green-up and again at jointing to early stem elongation. In spring wheat, he suggests putting a portion of nitrogen down at seeding time and returning back around early stem elongation with the balance. Needham recommends using a crop-sensing system to allow the second application to be applied variably.
Both Breker and Needham agree investments in soil tests will more than pay for themselves by helping producers gauge nutrient needs and avoid unnecessary fertilization.
“You create a high-yielding environment by planting the right seed at the right depth at the right time, with the right rates in the right soils,” Needham adds. “Then you manage the crop by the health of the crop.”
Back in Perdue, Nick Scharf is putting recent soil test results to use. After spurning wheat in 2016, he and his brother planted 1,000 acres of the grain this spring, applying starter fertilizer in bands. He used his mid-row bander to place both phosphorus and split-rate nitrogen roughly 3 inches deep where the crop’s roots could easily intercept it.
“Everyone around here is cutting wheat back big time,” he says. “But if we get the rain, I can make the bushels and make it work.”