Follow These Steps To Grow High-Yielding Winter Wheat

“That will never work in my area.” Growers often say this when presented with the idea of raising high-yielding winter wheat.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Wade Thomason

Crossing that elusive 100-bushel-per-acre threshold with winter wheat can seem like an unrealistic, unachievable goal.

It doesn’t have to be, according to Wade Thomason, professor and grains specialist at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. If growers stack the high-yield deck in their favor from the start, he says, achieving 100-plus bushels of wheat per acre is entirely possible in conducive environments.

“My advice is always, if you’re going to do it, do it as well as you can,” Thomason says, noting that increased expenditures on seed, fertilizer and disease protection can increase a grower’s overall return on investment. “If your plan for management is to spin seed out on the ground and maybe throw some fertilizer on it in February, that’s a recipe for not making any money.”

Farther west, Oklahoma State University small grains Extension specialist David Marburger says high-yield wheat is possible, even in his state, where average wheat yields are around 30 bushels per acre and the crop is often expected to multi-task as both cattle forage and grain.

“Here in Oklahoma, we focus a lot on cattle, so wheat is often dual-purpose,” Marburger explains. “We plant like any winter wheat crop, but get it in a little earlier in order to get more growth for grazing throughout the fall and winter. Once we break winter dormancy, we’ll pull the cattle off and let the wheat go to grain for harvest. We’re making beef and grain with one crop.”

Seed Selection and Rate

“As silly as it sounds, one of the most common mistakes is not getting lime applied soon enough.” —Wade Thomason

Whether producing dual-purpose or grain-only wheat, choosing the right genetics is the foundation of a high-yielding wheat crop. Thomason recommends growers look beyond their tried-and-true seed selections and consider newer varieties on the market.

“Having the right seed to begin with is a huge portion of what your expected outcome can be,” Thomason says. “If you’re not keeping up with the times, then you’re also not keeping up with the increase in potential being developed.”

Timely seeding can have a direct relationship with yield, he adds, citing Virginia Tech research that shows that fall-developed tillers produce more kernels and bigger kernels than spring-developed tillers.

“With winter wheat in this region, we have a nice window of several weeks for optimal planting,” he says. “But farmers must have their labor and machinery components in place to be able to get it done in a timely manner. I see people who continually try to do too much with too little.”

Only by establishing an adequate number of seedlings can optimum yields be achieved, says Thomason. “Singulation is certainly not as crucial as it might be with some crops like corn,” he says. “For optimum yields, we need a plant population of 22 to 25 vigorous plants per square foot. Taking germination rate into account, actual seeding rates will likely need to be 30 to 35 seeds per square foot.”

Nutrient Needs

When it comes to fertilization, Thomason advocates a fall application based on soil-test results and then two passes of nitrogen in the spring—one at green-up and one at jointing. “The first spring application is based on tiller density,” he explains. “Our strategy at that point is canopy management, making sure we have enough potential tillers so we can start growing again. The second application is based on laboratory tissue analysis. It’s a sufficiency approach. Do you have enough nitrogen to finish the season?”

For producers growing dual-purpose wheat for grazing and grain, Marburger recommends adding extra nitrogen to compensate for forage removal. “Oklahoma State University recommends applying an additional 60 pounds of actual N for every ton of wheat forage,” he says. “Around here, wheat will typically produce 1 to 2 tons of forage per acre per year for the grazing season.”

Don’t forget the lime and micronutrients, Thomason warns. “As silly as it sounds, one of the most common mistakes is not getting lime applied soon enough,” he says. “Growers think they’re going to make it one more year before pH gets too low. We also have to be cognizant of sulfur and micronutrients. In 50-bushel wheat, deficiencies of nutrients needed in tiny concentrations aren’t as big a deal. But in 100-bushel wheat, the need is doubled. The likelihood of a deficiency is much more common.”

Managing Pests, Reaping Rewards

“That’s been a hurdle to get over, just getting producers to spend a little bit more money because it’s going to make them more money in the end.” —David Marburger

While insect pressure can be sporadic, foliar diseases and head scab can be a threat every year, Thomason says. He recommends, at a minimum, to use a seed-treatment fungicide. In season, growers need to scout fields to determine whether applications of fungicides and insecticides are warranted.

“Our data says if you make a fungicide application based on scouting thresholds, it makes money for the farmer almost every time—above 90%,” Thomason says. “If you just spray fungicide, and there’s no disease present, it only makes money about a third of the time.”

Such site-specific information needs to come from the farm’s agronomic and economic decision-makers, he adds. In other words, growers need to get their boots on the ground.

“The guy who’s paying the bills needs to be the one in the field,” Thomason says. “He needs to be looking at the crop, making the counts and deciding what needs to be done.”

The best management in the world won’t do any good if the crop isn’t harvested in a timely manner, Thomason adds. Wheat is less forgiving than other crops when left in the field, since weathering, shattering, lodging and other factors can add up to significant losses.

“When the wheat is ready, it needs to come out,” Thomason says. “Timing is crucial. That comes back to making sure your machinery and labor are adequate.”

Spend Money to Make Money

Both Thomason and Marburger acknowledge that Mother Nature sometimes can prevent high-yield results, but they say lack of management is often the bigger issue. Growers who create the potential for success at the start are the ones who will likely achieve the most profits at harvest.

“Cost is the most common argument I hear against high-yield management,” Thomason says. “But we’re not just telling the grower to throw a bunch of money at the wheat crop. We want them to make educated input decisions based on threshold levels, tiller counts or nutrient values. That way, you know if you’re spending money, it’s for a real reason.”

Marburger agrees. “That’s been a hurdle to get over, just getting producers to spend a little bit more money because it’s going to make them more money in the end, even with the poor commodity prices we’ve had the past few years. Managing soil acidity by liming or at least using an in-furrow phosphorus fertilizer source, applying nitrogen when needed, and scouting and protecting the crop with the fungicide application would be three things that would help us make large strides in trying to maximize our yield potential.”