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Farming 101: Planting Wheat

Wheat: The oldest and most widely produced and consumed cereal crop on earth.

Along with wheat flour, wheat is used in starch, malt, dextrose, gluten, and alcohol. Nearly three fourths of all U.S. grain products are made from wheat flour, using not even half of the 2.4 billion bushels grown by U.S. farmers in 42 states each year. Wheat thrives at altitudes from sea level to 10,000 feet and generally needs around 10 inches of rainfall a year.

Wheat has been cultivated on earth for more than ten thousand years, and grows in a diverse range of climates and soils, yet every crop begins with putting seeds in the ground.

Spring wheat

There are thousands of varieties of wheat grown in two seasons: winter wheat and spring wheat.

Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in the summer. It needs a good root system and the beginnings of shoots before cold weather sets in.

Spring wheat is planted in early spring, as soon as possible, and harvested in late summer. Spring wheat is sometimes dormant seeded in late November or early December, when the ground is cold enough to inhibit germination until spring.

Ruth Beck, South Dakota State University Extension agronomy field specialist, says planting spring wheat in South Dakota begins as early as farmers can physically get equipment in the field. That is generally the end of March into April. Soil temps should be around 36˚F to 40˚F. for germination.

Beck calls spring wheat a “tough crop” because it keeps its growing point below the ground during early spring, which keeps it from being harmed by late spring frosts. Beck says the timing for spring wheat fits well with other spring farm work in her region of the country. A typical crop rotation for the area is two years of wheat, one of corn, and one of sunflowers, allowing for clean up weeds that are difficult to kill in wheat.

A good spring wheat stand at the southern end of spring wheat country is 1.2 to 1.4 million plants per acre. Areas to the north into Canada are planted at a slightly lesser rate, but there the growing season is longer and plants have time to develop more tillers. While not as high yielding, spring wheat grown farther south can often produce higher protein content.

“We put spring wheat through its growth stages fairly fast here,” says Beck. The wheat is harvested around the end of July, then often followed by a crop of winter wheat planted mid to late September.

Winter wheat

In winter wheat country – from Texas to Nebraska – winter wheat is generally planted the end of September through mid-October. The southern area of this region may use wheat as pasture. If so, planting begins a few weeks earlier, according to Stewart Duncan, agronomist at the Kansas State University Northeast Area Extension Office, who recommends a seeding rate of 60 to 75 pounds per acre. Areas with more moisture may use a heavier rate and adjusted planting dates. Duncan says to be sure to check the seed size and adjust the rate accordingly.

Formerly, planting was into a prepared, fallow seedbed, but in more recent years the trend is to follow a summer crop such as soybeans, sorghum, or corn. Soil temps need to be below 80˚F. in combination with favorable soil moisture levels for proper germination and emergence.

“You want to get seed to moisture, but don’t bury it,” says Duncan. No more than 3 inches deep is a general guideline, but varies by variety and field and weather conditions. Duncan says most modern air seeders do a good job once the cross wheel is set up.

No-till seeding, drilling the seed directly into untilled crop residue, is gaining in popularity across the country. The residue protects the soil from erosion and helps maintain soil health, and wheat easily emerges.

Seed and inputs

Choosing the right variety for your soil and climate can be overwhelming with so many options. Seed companies provide detailed information, as do producer groups. Beck suggests checking universities’ seed variety trials, which offer a wealth of reliable information.

Growers in some areas of the country depend on seed treatments to help protect against disease, weeds, and pests, as well as boost yield with fertilizers. Many crop threats flourish in warmer, wetter climates, making treatments more frequently used in southern winter wheat crops than in northern fields. Beck says the dry, cold climate there makes producers question the profitability of the extra cost.

For southern producers, a good disease seed-treatment package is essential and needs to be adapted yearly to seed genetics and environmental conditions, including pest resistance to treatments.

Duncan says to select varieties that have good disease tolerance against leaf and stem rust. He urges caution if selecting a stem rust susceptible variety. Stem rust is a devastating wheat disease once thought to be eradicated or of little consequence. In recent years, several high-yielding varieties with stem rust susceptibility have been released.

He also says to make sure there is no volunteer wheat, one of winter wheat’s greatest threats, in the area. Volunteer wheat harbors the wheat curl mite, which can lead to wheat diseases such as wheat mosaic streak virus. Any volunteer wheat within 2 miles should be killed at least two weeks in advance of planting.

Some producers clean their own seed rather than buying commercial product. Great care must be taken to ensure proper cleaning and sorting. “It is essential you make sure your seed is pure and comes from a reliable source,” says Beck.

Producers planting their own seed need to have it germination tested to evaluate seed emergence, just as you need to have a soil test performed on your field prior to planting to determine what nutrients are present and what type of additives are needed. Wheat is hearty and versatile, but fertile soil is required. Winter wheat producers generally like to split nitrogen application, with half in the spring and half as a top dress later in the season. Spring wheat producers are more likely to apply all fertilizer at or before planting.

Ready to roll

Once you have the inputs lined up and have made sure your equipment is in good working order, you are ready to plant. Duncan says to make sure you have good moisture, set the drill, then begin.

He recommends not checking your progress until you have planted at least 100 feet of crop. “Don’t go by the first 50 feet,” says Duncan. “It will be better at the edge where you were going slower.” Make sure the middle of the field is satisfactory.

No matter where you farm or what you plant, safety comes first. Mother Nature often adds a sense of urgency to planting time, but hurrying is what causes mistakes and accidents.

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