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How to grow better winter wheat

Winter wheat isn't just limited to the Great Plains and eastern and central Corn Belt states. It's gaining appeal in traditional spring wheat-growing regions like the Dakotas and Minnesota.

“It can spread out workload for the farmer and provide cover over the winter,” says Mark Wrucke, regional manager of development and market support at Bayer CropScience.There's a pocketbook perk. “Winter wheat in the Dakotas traditionally yields 10 to 15 bushels per acre more than spring wheat,” he says. It also fits a niche for planting prevented planted acres that have plagued upper Midwest farmers.

The downside? Fusarium head blight (scab) can plague winter wheat more than in spring wheat.

“Protein levels aren't as high,” says Wrucke. That can dash hopes of garnering protein premiums that add up to $1 per bushel in additional price.

Bayer is partnering with Ducks Unlimited, industry, and several land-grant universities in an upper Midwest winter wheat research and education initiative. Here are six recommendations garnered so far to successfully grow winter wheat.

● Select variety. Matching the top variety in the right field is key. Most varieties are still public, but there are more private varieties coming in the market, says Wrucke.

● Manage disease. Unless it's a totally dry year, a winter wheat fungicide program is essential, says Wrucke. “That includes a seed treatment program in the fall and then a good scab fungicide.”

● Kill the green bridge with a burndown herbicide. “Make sure there is no green material in the field for two weeks prior to planting and emergence,” says Wrucke. “Green materials harbor disease and insects, and transfer to the new crop. Barley yellow dwarf can be transferred by aphids. So make sure you get good burndown in those fields.”

● Minimize winterkill. Planting into stubble can help prevent winterkill. “If you don't have stubble, you've worked to dry those fields out, and it's black, then you need to seed something like flax rows every 50 feet or so to catch snow,” says Wrucke. “The more snow you keep on the winter wheat crop through the winter, the better the survival rate.”

Winterkill occurs when winter wheat is exposed to subfreezing temperatures. “The biggest concern for winterkill is when it's exposed to freezing and thawing. It helps to have snow on top of it,” Wrucke says.

● Fertilize. A multipronged fertility strategy works well. One strategy is a planting-time fertilizer application followed by one in early spring, says Wrucke.

● Seed sufficiently. Seeding rates typically hover around 1 million to 1.2 million seeds per acre. Winter wheat fares best when it's seeded in the upper Midwest around mid-September, says Wrucke.

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