Planting wheat earlier in the fall

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This past fall 2013, many growers found it difficult to plant wheat as early as they would like. In most cases, it was due to a prolonged dry-down period for the preceding crop. It resurrects the question of adjusting cropping strategies that may improve the odds of attaining timely wheat planting.

As growers know, one of the keys to achieving high-yielding wheat is to plant approximately between one to three weeks following the Hessian fly-free-date. So, for example, for much of central Michigan, this translates into planting the crop during the latter half of September or at least by the end of the first week of October. Planting beyond this window often leads to a loss of one or more bushels per acre of yield for every day planting is delayed.If winter injury occurs, the later plantings usually have even a greater disadvantage.

The 2014 crop may well serve as a case in point. Growers able to harvest the preceding crop and plant wheat by the first few days of October saw seedlings emerge evenly within 10 days of planting. Wheat planted after that time met with overly cool conditions that resulted in seedlings having to take two or three weeks to emerge which, in turn, meant they were unable to achieve optimal growth before winter dormancy. For the two-thirds of Michigan’s acreage that falls into this late category, the yields may be off five to 20 bushels compared to that of an early planted field.

As growers strategize, some thought might be given to ways that at least some of their wheat acres could be established earlier. The following are steps that some growers have adopted to improve their timeliness.

Plant the preceding crop earlier in the spring when possible. In the case of soybeans, harvest is often about one day earlier for every three days planting is moved up in the spring.

Be prepared to plant wheat immediately after the preceding crop is harvested. Some soybean and dry bean growers have demonstrated the wherewithal to plant wheat the same day the beans are harvested. Particularly if poor weather arises, this can potentially translate into a significant difference in time of planting.

Plant an earlier maturing variety of the preceding crop. For example, soybean growers could potentially move up their soybean harvest date by planting an earlier maturing variety. The yield differences between the two maturity groups may be nominal depending on the year and the particular variety selected. In Michigan State University Extension’s Thumb Agriculture Research and Education trials, comparing dozens of varieties over six years and three locations, the yield of varieties having maturities 1.8 to 2.2 versus those above 2.2 was only two bushels per acre in favor of the longer maturing varieties. In the Michigan Soybean Performance Reports, the same maturity comparison from 2008 to 2013 within the central region averaged only a 0.5 bushel difference.

Harvest the preceding crop earlier. For example, soybeans could be harvested at higher moistures and mechanically dried. In this case, if the grain needed to be dried four points and the grower estimates the drying cost to be $0.045 per point, the cost would be $0.18 per bushel.

Alter rotations to better accommodate wheat. For example, on livestock farms wheat might be successfully grown following corn for silage if at least two of the following three steps are taken to reduce the risk of Fusarium head scab:

  1. Mold board plow to completely incorporate corn stover and root balls.
  2. Select a red winter wheat variety having some genetic resistance to scab.
  3. Apply a moderate to high rate of Caramba or Prosaro fungicide at early flowering.

If, in fact, through one or more of these measures a grower is able to seed a few days earlier in the fall, wheat yields could potentially be increased by several bushels per acre. One could argue that there could be other advantages, including a reduction in the amount of seed and fall applied fertilizer nitrogen required and a decrease in weed pressure.

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