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Top secrets: 100-bushel wheat

To be honest, all growers don’t get 100 bushels an acre. In the whole state of Kentucky, the average yield is just about 80 bushels. But if you want to have a chance of placing in the Kentucky state wheat yield contest, you’d better shoot for 120 bushels an acre. That’s what the winners typically harvest. 

Daviess County farmer Jeff Coke won the 2013 contest, sponsored by the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Small Grain Growers’ Association, with 121.8 bushels of wheat an acre. 

What’s their secret? University of Kentucky Extension grain specialist Chad Lee studied the practices of 30 top entries over the last five years, and following are some of the common threads he discovered.

53% use no-till. That means 47% of winners use at least some tillage, but Lee says the scale is tipping to no-till. It’s not just about moisture and soil conservation or fewer field trips. “The highest contest yield we’ve ever seen was just over 130 bushels an acre, and that was no-till,” says Lee. “The no-till yields are always close to – or above – tilled yields. Our growers have got no-till figured out.”

93% use narrow rows. Lee says the common width is 7.5 inches. The other 7% are at 15 inches. “Our best yields are at 7.5-inch rows, but it isn’t by much,” says Lee. “When we go up to 15 inches, our research says yields go down by anywhere from 0% to 10%. We have tried 3.75-inch rows, to no advantage. Our goal is to capture 95% of the available sunlight by about the time of heading, just like we do with corn or soybeans, and we can do that in 7.5-inch rows.”

Typically, wheat growers in Lee’s state plant winter wheat in October into heavy corn residue. “It takes a heavy-duty drill to do that,” he says. The goal is to plant wheat seed about 1 inch deep in the soil, and Lee feels there’s a big payoff when you spend the time to calibrate the drill to do that precisely.

100% use foliar fungicide. “Our low-yield years on wheat are usually from freeze events or head scab,” says Lee. “Our best growers scout wheat diligently. Head scab is the biggie, and we are also looking for aphids. You have to get ahead of both of them. 

“We usually say that in about a third of the years, there is no scab; in one third of years, there is scab so bad it can even overwhelm fungicide treatments; and the rest of the time, fungicide works perfectly,” says Lee. “Ideal weather for wheat growth is ideal weather for head scab. Our good growers scout fields and spray fungicide routinely.” Plant breeders are working on scab-resistant varieties, Lee says, but so far we don’t have them.

97% do use foliar insecticides. Ditto for diligent scouting.

77% apply fall nitrogen (N) fertilizer. Kentucky wheat growers usually don’t fertilize heavily at planting – maybe 20 to 30 pounds of N per acre. The goal is to get the crop up and get the roots established before December. N fertilizer at this point encourages fall tillering of the plants, and that’s especially important if planting is delayed into November. Leftover N from the preceding corn crop may be enough to get it started in the fall. “We also hope for a little bit of warm weather after we plant the crop,” Lee says.

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87% use split N fertilizer applications. The best growers typically give a first shot of N in late winter. “We recommend 30 to 50 pounds per acre of N with conventional tillage and 40 to 60 pounds with no-till,” says Lee. “Then, we come back with that much again about midspring, for a total of 100 to 120 pounds.” Too much N, especially in one shot, and the wheat is more prone to lodging and disease, he says.

100% use herbicides. Effective weed control is a necessity if you’re shooting for record yields.  

One final thought

Here’s one more thought from Lee about high-yield wheat production. Wheat in Kentucky is typically grown as part of a double-crop system that includes corn, soybeans, and wheat. A regular corn crop is grown one year, and as soon as it’s harvested in the fall, winter wheat is drilled into the corn stubble. That wheat is harvested the following June, and immediately a soybean crop is planted (sometimes before the wheat combine leaves the field) that will be harvested in the fall. Then the three-crops-in-two-years rotation starts over again the next spring. 

Some farmers think they get a synergistic effect of the diverse polyculture of the system. 

“If there’s a problem with the system, it is normally in getting the timing to work,” says Lee. “You have to get the wheat crop harvested in June and get the soybeans planted right away to have a chance at a good soybean crop. Then, you hope for timely rains.” 

In 2013, it worked perfectly, probably the best ever, says Lee. “We had a good wheat crop, then we had the perfect rainfall for the soybeans. I know there were 100-bushel wheat fields followed by some 60-bushel soybeans harvested as a double crop.” 

Learn More

Kentucky Small Grain Growers’ Association

University of Kentucky Grain Crops Extension

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