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Wheat champ pushes yields

Winter wheat is a crop that many farmers tend to plant and forget. One Kansas farmer, however, finds that winter wheat can respond to higher management levels, even in dry years.

“Wheat is the toughest crop you’ll find here in this area and for these conditions,” says Chuck Downey, who farms near St. Francis in northwest Kansas.

The 2013 wheat crop had less than 8 inches of precipitation from its October 2012 planting to its July 2013 harvest. Often unpredictable and definitely limited, soil moisture is critical to raising a good wheat crop. That’s why Downey has adopted no-till.

“Keeping residue in place and not disturbing the soil are two ways I can keep moisture in the soil profile,” says Downey. He attributes no-till as one reason he achieved a top yield in 2013 of 70.05 bushels per acre, good enough to win the western region of the Kansas Wheat Commission’s wheat yield contest.

This is the second yield contest win for Downey, who farms and ranches with his wife, Megan, and her father, Walter Douthit, who owns much of the land Downey farms. Here are four ways Downey does it.

1. Start With Seed

Top wheat yields begin with top-quality seed. He buys certified seed each year, planting Syngenta’s SY Wolf that has been treated with insect and disease protectants. Downey pays close attention to plant population, trying to achieve maximum tiller count in the fall before the young crop hunkers down for the winter.

2. Stream On Liquid Fertilizer

What Downey does during the growing season sets him apart from many wheat growers. The contest field receives 24 gallons of nitrogen (N) per acre plus a few ounces of boron per acre in liquid form at tillering. He equips his sprayer with streambars, which dribble the liquid onto the crop and reduce damage to leaf tissue that can occur with regular nozzles.

At Feekes stage 5 (when the leaves begin to be erect), Downey sprays the following inputs on a per-acre basis:

  • 6 ounces of zinc

  • 5.5 pounds of magnesium sulfate

  • Helena products Coron and Ele-Max ENC (a blend of nitrogen, phosphate, potassium, and boron with iron, manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, and molybdenum

  • Helena’s herbicide Barrage to control grassy weeds, and DuPont’s Ally herbicide for broadleaves

  • Syngenta fungicide Tilt

At Feekes stage 10.1 (just prior to head emergence), he applies an identical round of zinc, magnesium sulfate, Coron, and Ele-Max ENC, plus BASF’s foliar fungicide Twinline.

3. Make Four Passes

In all, Downey makes four postemergence passes across the field to apply crop-protectant products. That’s more than most farmers do, but Downey makes sure the investment has a chance to pay off.  

“It is important not to put the inputs on the crop until there is yield potential,” he says. “Each time I put more money into the crop, I make sure there is enough potential return on investment to pay for it.”

4. Maximize Yield

That Downey has been able to maximize yield is no surprise to Jeanne Falk, a multicounty agronomy specialist for Kansas State University.

“Chuck is always testing things to see if it makes a difference,” she says. “He spends a lot of time making sure his plants have what they need, and he takes care of the things that equate to increased yield.”

Although 2013 wasn’t a prime year for diseases, Downey applied two shots of fungicide anyway. The applications kept the plant greener longer, which he believes prolongs the grain-fill period, adding bushels.

“The fungicide tends to delay harvest, which can be nerve-racking when storm clouds begin to gather in the west,” Downey admits. “The wheat is ready to cut earlier on my sandy soils, so by using fungicide on my heavier soils, I can spread out harvest a bit.”

Downey’s yield contest plot averaged about 15 bushels per acre more than his noncontest fields, which did not receive the additional micronutrient application at Feekes 10.1. The yield difference is enough to convince him that when market and yield conditions align just right, managing wheat for maximum yield can pay off.

“There is a lot to be gained by trying different things in wheat and by paying attention to the results,” he says.

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