Manitoba’s winter wheat woes this year may have some lessons for the coming crop.
Ken Gross, agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative, says fields that survived their dry planting, harsh winter and hot, dry, growing season this year might offer insight for what will likely be similarly moisture-starved conditions this fall.
Winter wheat acreage has been on a downtrend in Manitoba. Statistics Canada estimated last fall’s plantings at 70,000 acres down from 300,000 acres in 2013. Those didn’t do well this spring — many fields showed poor stands, something initially blamed on winterkill although experts say lack of moisture through May and June was a larger concern.
Lionel Kaskiw, farm production adviser with Manitoba Agriculture, says he noted several fields that started with hopeful stands, but were later written off.
“They just didn’t do anything,” he said during the second Crop Talk webinar in August. “They just sat there and never developed and it was mainly to do with the dry conditions.”
Don’t chase moisture
Farmers worried about winter survivability might want to look to their stubble.
Plummeting temperatures and lack of snow highlighted crops planted into taller stubble last year, Gross said. Fields with at least eight inches of canola stubble gave better snow catch and insulation for crops underneath.
“This is something that really came to light with our staff in Saskatchewan… when they went to look and evaluate fields this spring, they noticed real differences even within the same field as far as how strong and vigorous the stand was in the spring just based on the stubble height,” Gross said. “They noticed where the stubble was just a little bit higher, that the crop had overwintered better.”
Winter wheat growers may have also fallen into the same trap as some soybean growers at planting. Earlier this year, agronomists from Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers reported some farmers may have seeded below the recommended depth this spring in a bid to find moisture. That likely hurt establishment, they added.
Winter wheat growers may have had similar issues if they seeded deeper than the half- to one-inch range typically recommended.
“This was the biggest issue I saw between success and failure in Manitoba and a lot of the fields I looked at,” Gross said, noting that deep seeding will hinder crown development and limit a plant’s reserves going into the winter.
“No matter where you put the seed, the crown is placed one inch below the soil surface,” he said.
In properly seeded crops, there will be little separation between the seed and the crown, while crops that are seeded too deep will develop a connective tissue between the seed and the crown.
“That takes a little more energy,” Gross said. “In our dry conditions where we don’t see a lot of growth in the fall, that can be the difference between success and failure.”
Manitoba Agriculture cereals specialist Anne Kirk echoed Gross.
“Winter wheat needs a very little amount of moisture to actually get going in the fall,” she noted.
Seeding rate, seed treatment and fertility earned a mention from Gross.
Heavier seeding will translate to fewer tillers, a more uniform stand and greater yield, he said, and growers should aim for plant stands around 33 plants a square foot, even higher than the 23 plants typically recommended.
Trials have also noted denser stands with seed treatment about every one in three or four years, Gross added.
“It’s cheap insurance and when we’re seeding into dry conditions, like we likely are this fall, every little thing that you can put in your favour to increase success makes a lot of sense to me,” he said.
Gross also advised producers to split fall and spring nitrogen more evenly, rather than most nitrogen going on in the fall.
“The seed head develops in the spring, not in the fall,” he said.
“As soon as it starts to green up in the spring, that plant is starting to develop its seed head and if you have some nutrients available for that plant, it can develop a vigorous, healthy plant and that means it’s going to develop a bigger seed head.”
The dry spring meant that many nitrogen applications were delayed this year, he later said.
Winter cereal harvest is well underway in the province. There had been few yield estimates as of August 7, although Kirk noted that the first reports from the Morris area have hovered between 50 to 60 bushels an acre.
While yield reports are still coming in, Kirk says she has noted only low disease levels and expects crop quality to be good.
Manitoba Agriculture has yet to speculate on how many winter wheat acres might be planted this fall.