Soils remain very dry in many parts of western and southern Kansas, which may have producers thinking about how to get a stand of wheat under these conditions. Whatever the soil conditions, there are a few important steps producers can take to improve their chances of getting a good stand of wheat:
* Proper tractor speed. It is best to use a tractor speed of between 5 and 6 miles per hour in most cases when drilling wheat, depending on the amount of down pressure on the openers. If higher speeds are used, the openers can tend to “ride up” in the soil every now and then if down pressure is insufficient, similar to the effect of a speedboat pulling a water skier. At slow speeds, the water skier sinks into the water a bit; but once the boat picks up speed the water skier lifts up onto the surface of the water. The same principle applies to a tractor pulling a grain drill.
* Proper, uniform seeding depth. The ideal planting depth for wheat in most cases is about 1.5 inches. When planting early into very warm soils, it is especially important not to plant too deeply since coleoptile lengths are shorter than normal under warm conditions. On the other extreme, producers should also be especially careful not to plant too deeply when planting later than the recommended time into very cool soils. Getting a uniform seeding depth is also important. Where producers are planting into fields with heavy residue, or where there is uneven distribution of chaff from the previous crop, uneven planting depth can be a serious problem. In those situations, it is common to end up with poor stand establishment in areas of the field where the drill opener rode up over the residue or chaff, and was unable to penetrate the soil to the same depth as in other areas of the field.
* Firm seedbed. One of the most common problems in wheat stand establishment is planting into loose, fluffy soils. This problem tends to occur most often where soils have been tilled repeatedly during the summer. When seeds are planted into loose soils, rains in the fall will settle the soil and leave the crowns of the seedlings too close to the soil surface. Having a good closing system behind the drill openers, with adequate down pressure, should help.
* Plant during the optimum time. In general, wheat should be planted somewhere around the Hessian fly-free date. There may be good reasons to plant some wheat before the fly-free date, such as planting for pasture or time pressures from having considerable acreage to plant. But stand establishment and ultimate grain yields are usually best when wheat is planted after the fly-free date and before deadlines set by crop insurance. Planting more than three weeks after the fly-free date can be risky. Late-planted wheat often does not develop an adequate root system before winter, and forms fewer productive fall tillers. When planting late, seeding rates should be increased by 25 to 50 percent (up to a maximum of 120 lbs/acre) to help ensure an adequate stand and compensate for the lack of tillering.
* Adequate soil fertility. In general, producers should apply at least part of their nitrogen before or at planting time to get the plants off to a strong start. Nitrogen rates of 20-30 lbs can help with fall establishment and tillering. If the soil is low or very low in phosphorus or potassium, these nutrients should be applied at planting time as well so that the plants benefit early in their development. Starter phosphorus with the seed or band-applied close to the seed can also help with fall early growth and establishment, particularly in low testing soils. Low soil pH can be a concern particularly early in the season when root systems are mostly near the surface, which is often an area of lower pH. Soil tests will determine the need for pH adjustment, and potential for aluminum toxicity. Lime application, variety selection, and phosphorus application with the seed are potential management strategies for low pH and aluminum toxicity issues.
* Using a seed treatment. Fungicide seed treatments may help with stand establishment in certain situations. For seed production fields, a systemic seed treatment is highly recommended to help keep seedborne pathogens such as bunt and loose smut out of seed stocks. In addition, seed treatments sometimes improve stands. Due to the high value of the seed produced, even small yield increases can justify the use of seed treatments. For grain production fields, seed treatment economics are less certain. Conditions favoring use of standard seed treatments in grain production fields include: 1) high yield potential field, 2) seed saved from field with loose smut, bunt, or Fusarium head blight last year, 3) expensive seed, 4) low planting rates, 5) planting under poor germination conditions, especially very early or late planting, or 6) poor quality or old seed. If planting that late or into heavy residue, it’s probably a good idea to use a fungicide seed treatment, even on seed that has high test weight and good germination. Insecticide seed treatments may be needed for control of soil insects (see separate article in this issue).
* Make adjustments for planting into row crop stubble. When planting wheat into grain sorghum stubble, producers will need an extra 30 lbs N per acre over their normal N rate. Also, it is important to make sure the sorghum is dead before planting wheat. When planting wheat into soybean stubble, producers should not reduce their N rates since the N credit from soybeans doesn’t take effect until the following spring. If the wheat is being planted no-till after row crop harvest, N rates should be increased by 20 lbs N per acre over the normal N rate. Seeding rates should be increased when planting wheat late after row crop harvest. It’s best to use a seeding rate of 90 to 120 lbs per acre in central and eastern Kansas, and 75 to 100 lbs per acre in western Kansas. When planting more than three week’s after the Hessian fly-free date, producers should use a seeding rate of 120 lbs per acre.
* Watch out for potential disease issues when planting into corn residue. The risk of some diseases may be higher when wheat is planted into fields with large amounts of corn residue left on the soil surface. Fusarium head blight (scab) of wheat, for example, is caused by a fungus that is known to cause a stalk rot of corn. This elevated risk of Fusarium head blight is best countered with wheat varieties with genetic resistance to disease. Wheat varieties with moderate levels of resistance to Fusarium include Everest, Hitch, and Overland. Other wheat varieties should be considered susceptible to head blight.