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Getting the Most From Your Spring Wheat Crop

Farming is a gamble. Every seed that goes in the ground is a possible moneymaker. But how does the farmer make that seed reach its full potential?

For the wheat producer, it comes down to size of the grain and number of grains per spike.

But, of course, it’s not that simple. Some factors are controllable; some are not.

The first thing a producer needs to do is eliminate any volunteer winter wheat or grassy weeds from the field prior to planting. A particular problem in the Western Plains, wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) will infect both winter and spring wheat and has the potential to decrease yields up to 60%. The virus requires a living host and prefers grasses. That makes it important to control weeds, and especially volunteer wheat, that create a “green bridge effect.”

Volunteer winter wheat can be effectively controlled with tillage or herbicides. Plants must be dead at least two weeks prior to planting. A recent University of Nebraska Extension study showed tillage can help speed up the process under dry conditions, and herbicides work better under wet conditions. The study also stresses the importance of good broadleaf weed control in the previously growing winter wheat crop. Proper planting time and virus-resistant varieties can also help eliminate the risk of infestation.

Seed matters

Of course, planting the right seed matters. Be sure to consult your seed salesman for the best options for your area and field type. And choose your seed treatments wisely. “Know exactly what you are getting,” says Lucas Haag, Kansas State University Extension agronomist. “Insecticidal seed treatments may not be worth the extra cost. In most cases, you only get two to three weeks of protection.”

If you choose treated seed, make sure the seeds are adequately covered. A 2014 Kansas State study of seed treatment samples indicated 42% of the samples had inadequate seed coverage.

Also remember to adjust your planter. Treated seeds are larger than non-treated seeds, a factor in determining your seeding rate.

Romulo Lollato, assistant professor of wheat and forages production at Kansas State, says aiming for a final plant population of 1 million seeds per acre provides the best chance of achieving 75 heads per square foot, the number he believes is necessary to maximize yield potential.

Let the growing begin

Once the growing season begins, it all comes down to temperature, moisture, and good plant nutrition.

“Regardless of the management practices, a dry spring will limit grain yields,” says Lollato. “Using crop-protection products such as fungicide and adequate fertilizer during the growing season can protect maximum yield, providing weather is conducive to wheat production.”

The Drought Monitor shows the region of extreme drought increasing significantly this spring, engulfing all of Kansas and most of Oklahoma and Texas, meaning the weather could be problematic. Early planting intentions had spring wheat acres around 1.5 million over last year, but experts are already banking on a significant reduction in acreage due to late planting conditions and the prospect of drought.

Proper food and nutrition

Unlike the weather, plant nutrition is controllable, and essential in building that all-important green leaf canopy. Leading the list of macro and micronutrients required for high wheat yield are nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium.

Nitrogen and magnesium support chlorophyll, the nitrogen and magnesium rich protein that gives the plant its green color and is central to photosynthesis.

Nitrogen management will have the most impact on final wheat grain size and weight, as well as the number of grains on individual spikes.

Nitrogen application timing is crucial. Grain numbers are determined early, and early application ensures a canopy that is large and contains high levels of stem carbohydrate, necessary for grain maturation. This is particularly important in drought areas where 60% of the grain yield could come from this store of carbohydrate.

Potassium plays an important role in maintaining cell turgidity and strength as well as nutrient movement around the plant. Potassium will also influence the numbers of grains per spike, as it helps avoid early senescence often brought on by drought during grain fill.

The greatest demand for all macronutrients occurs during the period of rapid spring growth. Be sure to have your soils tested to determine the correct quantity of all nutrients needed.

The key is to maintain the leafy canopy through the grain filling stage.

Plenty to drink

Along with nutrient and disease management, water management can influence grain size. If possible, look at irrigation options in drought conditions for good plant health.

According to Montana State University, the total seasonal requirement for a spring wheat crop is about 18-21 inches, with timing of the cover affecting total use by a few inches of water. Cooler temperatures through the growing season will further reduce water needs. Beware over-irrigating, as it can cause leaching, especially of nitrogen if plants are over-watered early in the season before the nitrogen is utilized.

So, choose the right seed, manage your disease risk and your nutrient and water supply, and say a quick prayer to the weather gods, and you will be on your way to a productive and profitable spring wheat crop.

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