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Spring wheat vigor

Another record North Dakota wheat yield would be nice for the 2012 season, says Jim Peterson, marketing director, North Dakota Wheat Commission.

The state saw a record 46-bushel-per-acre average for spring wheat in 2009, followed by a strong average yield of 44 bushels per acre in 2010. Weather hurt the 2011 crop, but things look hopeful for 2012, Peterson says.

As of mid-March, an early spring was approaching for seeding. The big moisture and flooding concerns of 2011 were past and were possibly being replaced by a drier and earlier outlook for the new season.

Many factors connect with the increasing yields, like higher yield potential due to better wheat genetics, changes in equipment and land management, changes in crop management, and pressure from competing corn production, Peterson says.

“Corn competition has raised the bar regarding what farmers are able to generate per acre. So producers are doing any little thing they can to squeeze out a few extra gross dollars per acre,” he says.

“This year, corn will compete all the way out to Minot and down to Dickinson. It's really extended its reach. A lot of those farmers have produced 80-bushel corn on a normal-year basis; whereas, wheat is maybe averaging around 50 with some of the better producers,” he says.

If a grower can sell corn at $5 on the cash market, wheat also needs to show potential for close to $400 an acre, or a 50-bushel yield at $8 a bushel in areas where corn is a viable crop.

Last March, Peterson said, “$7.30 is about what's offered (for wheat). Wheat yields need to keep working higher, as long as we hold our quality edge in the world.”

Increased fungicide use is one of the widespread and important changes leading to higher average yields. Seed treatments and foliar in-crop fungicide applications have been gaining ground into the drier areas of the state.

In 2004, North Dakota farmers treated 1.5 million acres of wheat with fungicides, according to Peterson. Four years later, they treated 3.5 million acres or about 40% of the wheat acres.

“Maybe it's 60% now,” Peterson says. “Even in the drier areas out West, where the general perception has been that fungicides don't benefit, they're starting to find that fungicide does help. In some years it helps a lot more than others. But it is a benefit that can help boost yield by keeping the wheat plant healthy.”

In northeastern North Dakota, seed grower Brian O'Toole was an early adopter of fungicide for protecting his wheat yields. That was about 20 years ago. O'Toole fertilizes for a 70-bushel yield today and budgets for a fertilizer top dressing to keep his protein up. He applies a seed treatment as well as up to three in-crop fungicides applications to keep the wheat healthy and vigorous. Understanding the health requirements of wheat has been a game changer for him.

“We're trying to keep diseases out of it,” O'Toole says. “We put fungicides on seed at the four-leaf stage, at the flag-leaf stage, and we'll fungicide the heads.”

In central North Dakota, Terry Weckerly grows up to 4,000 acres of spring wheat at Hurdsfield. Weckerly says timely application of fungicides and insecticides has the single biggest impact on yield. He applies fungicide when weeds are being sprayed at the five-leaf stage and again when the wheat is in flower.

“It'll keep our plants healthy, and keeping them healthy keeps the disease pressure down,” he says.

In 2009, Weckerly saw his wheat average 75 bushels per acre across the farm. With ideal growing conditions and protection, the wheat ended up disease-free, but it was short of nitrogen.

“The next year, we started experimenting with nitrogen sprayed on after the flowers dropped. Then we had a 65-bushel crop. But our protein raised back up to the 14s in the fields where we experimented,” he says.

The combination learned from a great yield and disastrous protein in 2009 sticks with Weckerly.

“We've learned a lot of enhancing procedures,” he says. “But even now, if it looks like the yield is going to out-strip what we put down for fertilizer, we'll top-dress some more nitrogen on it after heading.”

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