Wheat field management a new priority

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The first crop that we will need to begin working with this year, as always, will be wheat.  This crop that is most often associated with the Great Plains has become an important part of our cropping system in the South. Prices in recent years have made wheat an attractive crop for Southern growers, and it lends itself well to much of the land we farm.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would grow wheat when the price was under $2 per bushel and yields were barely over 30 bushels per acre. This was the case in the early 1970’s, but by 1975 the price had skyrocketed all the way up to $4. With some improvement in management justified by prices the yields had risen a little, but the best yields in this area barely passed 40.

By 2008 the price of wheat was approaching $7 and yields were more consistent in the 45 to 55 bushel range with improved varieties and management. We are still in 2013 seeing increases in yields and prices with yields now commonly in the 60 to 70 bushel range with some fields passing 90. Prices now commonly fall into the $7 to $9 range, but occasionally higher.

We might ask how this great improvement in wheat production has occurred. It’s a combination of factors including improved varieties, but we are doing a much better job of farming this crop today than we did in the 1970’s. We once just planted it in the fall, applied barely enough N and sprayed it with 2,4-D for weeds, but now we get a lot more serious about wheat.

The people who are growing wheat today are doing a better job. They have raised the level of management in the crop because they must in order to be successful. A 30 bushel crop today is regarded as almost a failure, and economically speaking it is.

These days we carefully address drainage, often avoiding fields with drainage issues. Careful attention is paid to soil quality and fertility. Proven varieties are planted, mostly with drills to achieve better stands. We apply herbicides as needed in the fall in many cases, to avoid the competition that is so detrimental to wheat.  Nitrogen, as well as additional phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, zinc and other elements are supplied according to soil and tissue tests.

Wheat is carefully scouted by professionals who know what the crop needs. Fungicides may be applied for some diseases that have been recognized as having the potential to reduce yields. You might say that wheat production has become part of the “system” on many Southern farms where other crops, especially soybeans, are planted after the wheat is harvested.

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