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Fields of amber

When wet weather patterns spawned disease in North Dakota’s
traditional durum wheat country, many durum growers switched to hard red spring
wheat.

Still, North Dakota farmers Jim Diepolder, Willow City, and
Larry Neubauer, Bottineau, continued to grow the amber fields of durum they’ve
raised since the 1970s. They’ve evolved strategies that help them consistently
hit the durum milling-quality marketing target.

“I’ve always found that the benefits of yield, quality, and
a price premium have made durum a good crop for my farm,” says Neubauer,
president of the U.S. Durum Growers Association (USDGA). “I’ve historically
sold durum for more than spring wheat.”

Indeed, last year’s price spread between spring wheat and
durum was as much as $6 a bushel. Other years, however, the per-bushel price
difference between the crops has ranged from 60¢ to $2, says Diepolder, past
president of the USDGA.

Steps for top-notch durum

Missing the milling-quality mark can discount durum wheat
50¢ to $1.50 per bushel. Yet, these strategies help Neubauer and Diepolder
consistently grow high-quality durum.

• Rotate the sequence. Neubauer follows this rotational
order: durum or spring wheat, barley, canola or flax or sunflowers, and durum.

Durum yields best when following canola, says Neubauer. “The
canola ground is mellow, and, of course, the moisture usage stops earlier in
canola fields because the canola is harvested earlier in the season than flax
or sunflower,” he says.

He avoids following spring wheat with durum for at least
three years. This prevents volunteer wheat seeds from surfacing in harvested
durum.

Diepolder likes to grow durum after sunflowers. Sunflower ground tends to be drier during
spring durum planting. That’s particularly helpful during wet cycles, when
durum disease pressure is greatest.

• Know your soil type. “Durum does well in sandy and
medium-loam soils,” says Neubauer. “But it doesn’t like saline soil. Spring
wheat does better in that type of soil.”

• Select new varieties. “In the more recent varieties that
have been developed, yields and quality have gone up, and gluten contents have
gotten higher,” says Diepolder.

• Manage the residue. Diepolder likes to fall-harrow harvest
residue before seeding durum in spring. 

“Harrowing the residue starts the volunteer seedlings from
the previous crop,” he says. “A good spreader on a combine chops and spreads
the chaff and residue. My only reason for harrowing is to germinate volunteer
growth and to reduce the moisture loss it might cause the following season.”

• Seed at your own rate. “A lot of university data
recommends seeding at a rate of 2 bushels per acre,” says Neubauer. “But I seed
at a rate of 1.6 bushels per acre. A number of years ago I did several check
strips on my farm and found that heavier seeding didn’t increase yield and, in
fact, served to reduce durum quality.”

• Control weeds at seeding. Using a sweep-opener seeder,
Diepolder plants directly into fall-harrowed sunflower residue. “The sweeps
reduce one herbicide application by knocking out weed seedlings in early
spring,” he says. “That helps to prevent weeds from building up too much
resistance to chemical.”

• Manage disease. Scab spawned by wet conditions prompted
many wheat growers to drop durum. “We monitor fields and follow the
scab-monitor index provided by North Dakota State University to help us decide
whether or not it’s practical to apply fungicide,” says Diepolder.

Applying fungicides earlier in the growing season, when
plants are in the three- to four-leaf growth stage, has worked best for
Neubauer. 

“I use both late- and early-season applications of
fungicide, but I seem to get the best response from the early treatments,” he
says.

• Control weeds early. “Because durum doesn’t seem to have as
much competitiveness with weeds as some other crops, I spray for weeds early,
about when plants are in the three-leaf stage,” says Neubauer.

In fall, he spot-sprays kochia in fields slated for durum
the following spring. “Durum is not competitive with kochia,” he says.

• Manage your harvest. Excessive field exposure to rain and
sun during harvest can damage milling quality.

“I will not seed more acres to durum than I feel that I can
get off the field in a timely manner,” says Neubauer. “Because durum quality
suffers from weathering, I’ll consider hiring a custom combiner quicker than I
will with other crops.”

• Know when to cure. This helps determine if durum makes
milling grade. “I prefer to harvest grain when it’s at the front end of being
cured in the field,” says Neubauer. “I take it at 16% moisture. In other words,
I harvest it right before it’s ready. I like to cure it in the bin with a
natural air-drying system.”

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