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Eight Ways to Improve Wheat Planting Success

Bill Spiegel Updated: 09/02/2014 @ 11:20am I grew up in north-central Kansas, and am the Fourth Generation to maintain and manage our farm on which we grow wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum. I'm a 1993 graduate of Kansas State University in ag communications. I joined the Successful Farming/Agriculture.com team in 2014.

Whatever the soil moisture conditions at wheat planting time, there are a few important steps producers can take to improve their chances of getting a good stand of wheat, says Jim Shroyer, Kansas State University agronomist emeritus.

  • Proper tractor speed. It is best to use a tractor speed of between 5 and 6 miles per hour in most cases when drilling wheat, depending on the amount of down pressure on the openers. If higher speeds are used, the openers can tend to “ride up” in the soil every now and then if down pressure is insufficient.
  • Proper, uniform seeding depth. The ideal planting depth for wheat in most cases is about 1.5 inches. When planting early into very warm soils, it is especially important not to plant too deeply since coleoptile lengths are shorter than normal under warm conditions. On the other extreme, producers should also be especially careful not to plant too deeply when planting later than the recommended time into very cool soils. Getting a uniform seeding depth is also important. Where producers are planting into fields with heavy residue, or where there is uneven distribution of chaff from the previous crop, uneven planting depth can be a serious problem. In those situations, it is common to end up with poor stand establishment in areas of the field where the drill opener rode up over the residue or chaff, and was unable to penetrate the soil to the same depth as in other areas of the field.
  • Firm seedbed. Planting into loose, fluffy soils can be a problem where soils have been tilled repeatedly during the summer. When seeds are planted into loose soils, rains in the fall will settle the soil and leave the crowns of the seedlings too close to the soil surface. Having a good closing system behind the drill openers - with adequate down pressure -should help.
  • Optimal planting time. In general, wheat should be planted somewhere around the Hessian fly-free date. There may be good reasons to plant some wheat before the fly-free date, such as planting for pasture or time pressures from having considerable acreage to plant. But stand establishment and ultimate grain yields are usually best when wheat is planted after the fly-free date and before the deadlines set by crop insurance. Planting more than three weeks after the fly-free date can be risky. Late-planted wheat often does not develop an adequate root system before winter, and forms fewer productive fall tillers. When planting late, seeding rates should be increased by 25% to 50% (up to a maximum of 120 pounds per acre) to help ensure an adequate stand and compensate for the lack of tillering.
  • Adequate soil fertility. In general, producers should apply at least part of their nitrogen before or at planting time to get the plants off to a strong start. Nitrogen rates of 20 to 30 pounds can help with fall establishment and tillering. If the soil is low or very low in phosphorus or potassium, these nutrients should be applied at planting time as well so that the plants benefit early in their development. Starter phosphorus with the seed or band-applied close to the seed can also help with fall early growth and establishment, particularly in low-testing soils. Low soil pH can be a concern particularly early in the season when root systems are mostly near the surface, which is often an area of lower pH. Soil tests will determine the need for pH adjustment and the potential for aluminum toxicity. Variety selection and phosphorus application with the seed are potential management strategies for low pH and aluminum toxicity issues if it is too late to apply lime before seeding.
  • Row-crop stubble planting adjustments. When planting wheat into grain sorghum stubble, producers will need an extra 30 pounds of N per acre over their normal N rate. Also, it is important to make sure the sorghum is dead before planting wheat. When planting wheat into soybean stubble, producers should not reduce their N rates since the N credit from soybeans doesn’t take effect until the following spring. If the wheat is being planted no-till after row-crop harvest, N rates should be increased by 20 pounds of N per acre over the normal N rate. Seeding rates should be increased when planting wheat late after row-crop harvest. It’s best to use a seeding rate of 90 to 120 pounds per acre in central and eastern Kansas, and 75 to 100 pounds per acre in western Kansas. When planting more than three weeks after the Hessian fly-free date, producers should use a seeding rate of 120 pounds per acre.
  • Potential disease issues. Watch out for potential disease issues when planting into corn residue. The risk of some diseases may be higher when wheat is planted into fields with large amounts of corn residue left on the soil surface. Fusarium head blight (scab) of wheat, for example, is caused by a fungus that is known to cause stalk rot in corn. 
  • Use of a seed treatment.

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