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3 Ways to Boost Wheat Yields

In the last three years, winter wheat producers in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas have documented yields greater than 120 bushels per acre. These are isolated cases, but they have Kansas State University researchers believing winter wheat farmers are leaving yield on the table. They have identified three steps you can take to get more from your wheat crop. 

1. Recognize diseases that erode yields

Foliar diseases are likely costing more yield than you might think. In 2015, Kansas farmers lost nearly 23% of their crop to wheat diseases, specifically stripe rust (15.4%) and fusarium head blight (3.4%). Both of these can be controlled with midseason applications of fungicide.

Wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) wrecked 2.7% of the state’s wheat crop, and it must be controlled by management practices. WSMV is vectored by the wheat curl mite, which lives on green grass hosts and can zap a field of emerged wheat in the fall. Bethany Grabow, graduate student at Kansas State University’s department of plant pathology, says it is imperative that prior to fall planting, you control volunteer wheat and other grassy weeds in order to stop the "green bridge." This helps keep wheat curl mites from attacking new wheat.

“Host plants must be dead two weeks before planting. Without a host, the mites only live for a few days,” she says.

There are a few varieties resistant to WSMV, but insecticides are not effective. Since wheat curl mites can be windblown from several miles away, it is absolutely necessary to keep those green grassy weeds in check.

2. Choose seed treatments carefully

There is a long list of insecticides, fungicides, combination packages, fertility packages, and growth regulators you can apply to wheat seed prior to planting. All are labeled seed treatments, so be sure you know exactly what you’re getting before you agree to your seed dealer’s seed treatment package, says Lucas Haag, KSU Extension agronomist.

Fungicide seed treatments can control loose smut, fusarium seedling blight, and both common and flag smut. However, insecticide seed treatments don’t always pay off.

“In most cases, you only get two to three weeks of protection. Therefore, insecticidal seed treatments may not be worth the extra cost,” Haag says.

Grabow reminds you to make sure wheat seeds are adequately covered with protection product. A KSU study of seed treatment samples in 2014 indicated that 42% of the samples had inadequate, or partial, seed coverage. “Seed treatments only protect what they cover,” Grabow explains. “Make sure the seeds are fully and uniformly covered.”

If you use seed treatment, remember to calibrate your drill, taking into account the larger size of treated wheat. “Seed treatments will definitely change your planting population,” Haag says.

3. Pay attention to seed populations

It is vital to start the growing season off correctly with seeding rate.

Wheat specialist Romulo Lollato says aiming for a final plant population of 1 million seeds per acre provides the best chance to achieve 75 heads per square foot, which he believes is necessary to maximize yield potential.

That’s one factor in wheat-yield determination. Other factors include grains per square foot and individual grain weight. The former is dependent upon the number of grain-bearing tillers, and Lollato suggests that fall-formed tillers contribute more grains than spring-formed tillers. Obtaining more fall tillers can be managed by planting date, plant population, and fertility, he says. Grain weight, meanwhile, is determined in the last 40 days of the growing season and is trickier to manage. Temperature, moisture availability, and plant nutrition all affect grain weight.

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. 

Regardless of the management practices, a dry spring will limit grain yields, Lollato says.

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