Recent rains have brightened the outlook for winter wheat, assuming farmers can get on the drill.
Western Winter Wheat Initiative agronomist Ken Gross said conditions are ideal for the crop’s first flush, despite the dry conditions that have plagued Manitoba this growing season.
“As far as getting winter wheat into the ground, it may be difficult if producers haven’t already harvested some canola or, perhaps, oats out east, but if they have a field open, it’s perfect growing conditions for winter wheat,” he said.
Winter wheat acres have plummeted in Manitoba, but agronomists pushing the crop hope to reverse that trend with better agronomy, plus good growing conditions this fall.
Parts of western Manitoba and some patches of the east saw over 50 millimetres of rain Aug. 24-27, according to Manitoba Agriculture. A further swath northeast from Hamiota and into the Interlake near Moosehorn saw between 40 and 50 millimetres, some of the only substantial rains to fall on that area of the Interlake this year. Those storms missed most of the southern Interlake, however. Another storm system Sept. 4 brought almost 40 millimetres to the Brandon area.
Rains have slowed harvest, but few of the producers Gross has spoken to are worried about getting stuck. The dry soil has quickly absorbed the rain and producers are soon back in the field, he said.
Gross says winter wheat may be poised for resurgence. It’s been on the decline in recent years, with only 130,000 acres in 2017 compared to 615,000 acres in 2013, according to MASC.
Winterkill further whittled acreage and hit yields last year. MASC reported only 34,000 harvested acres in 2018, 32 per cent lower than the 10-year average. Fields that survived averaged 56 bushels an acre, also well below the 65-bushels average in the previous decade.
“I see a lot of interest in it again this fall,” Gross said. “Producers are seeing some of the yields that we’re getting.”
Field trials near Roblin and Winnipeg returned over 100 bushels an acre this year, while AAC Wildfire, a relatively new variety on the market, has been yielding 123 bushels an acre.
The province has reported slightly lower numbers. The provincial crop report noted yields between 60 and 70 bushels an acre in central Manitoba and 60 to 75 bushels an acre in the Interlake as of Aug. 20. The following week, the province noted “average to below-average” winter cereal yields in the southwest.
The province did note, however, that hybrids were yielding higher than open-pollinated varieties.
“Some of the newer varieties really have the producers interested,” Gross said. “It’s just a matter of getting it into the ground. Now the weather is a factor in that for sure, and getting a hold of the seed is getting to be a little bit of a challenge.”
The crop has fallen out of favour with seed growers given the falling acreage, he noted.
Producers will soon be able to get a list of seed growers through Ducks Unlimited and the Western Winter Wheat Initiative in response to that problem.
Balancing the nutrient budget
The Western Winter Wheat Initiative hopes better agronomy will also help tilt seeding decisions towards winter wheat.
Current practice involves putting down about 120 pounds an acre of nitrogen, about 30 pounds an acre of phosphate and generally to “ignore potassium altogether,” Gross said, something he warns may come back to haunt the producer on winter hardiness.
“Quite often, producers overlook their potassium and phosphate requirements, so we’re working with Western Ag to provide more of a balanced fertility recommendation and I’m really happy with the results so far,” he said.
Producers involved with the project reported 75 to 85 bushels an acre, above most yields reported by the provincial crop report, despite only a few inches of rainfall through the growing season.
The Western Winter Wheat Initiative, Western Ag and Winter Cereals Manitoba area are also researching how to match fertility with new higher-yielding varieties at Manitoba’s crop diversification centres.
Gross commonly urges producers to put half of their nitrogen down at seeding, despite increased risk of loss over the winter.
Gross acknowledges the risk although he argues that products like SuperU or Agrotain and conversations with an agronomist can do much to mitigate that risk.
“We want that nitrogen available first thing in the spring so that seed head that’s developing at the time has access to nutrition and can maximize yield potential,” he said.