Weighing your options for winter cereal crops

Manitoba is still in a state of drought as winter cereal seeding season approaches, but in some ways, that’s increasing interest

Fall rye (right) shows more vigorous early-spring growth compared to winter wheat (left), which needs more heat to start growing.

Planting into dust, in a drought year, may have some producers questioning the possibility of success, but cereal experts have shown some optimism over the future of winter cereals this season.

Why it matters: The province is dry, but the urge to get the most out of water-use efficiency, or ease the feed strain for livestock producers, may be incentive enough for producers to seed winter cereals.

Now closing in on typical winter cereal seeding, Alex Griffiths, agrologist with Ducks Unlimited and the Western Winter Wheat Initiative, says he has seen more immediate interest in his program this year versus 2020.

“I’ve been surprised, to be honest,” he said. “Last year, when we advertised for our program, I probably only got a handful of calls, total. Winter wheat has really died down in the last couple of years.”

This year, the initiative began advertising in the first week of August, “and the very first day that we advertised, I think I had like six calls,” Griffiths said.

Higher yield and water-use efficiency, since the timing of winter cereals puts them on better footing with early-spring moisture than spring wheat, are helping drive that interest, he noted.

At the same time, he said, this year’s harvest timing may leave the window open for winter cereals.

Hot and dry conditions this year have contributed to an early harvest. According to the Aug. 10 provincial crop report, harvest completion sat above the five-year average.

“There’s going to be time to get some seeding in,” Griffiths said. “So I actually think that we’re going to see winter cereals, in total, increase.”

The farmers he’s been working with since last year have reported yields anywhere from 40 to 62 bushels an acre this summer, he said, although at least one field reported a higher yield of 85 bushels to the acre.

Spring wheat has reported 20 to 70 bushels an acre, according to the Aug. 10 provincial crop report.

According to data from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, just over 27,400 acres were planted to winter wheat in 2020 (plus 1,600 pedigreed acres), a fraction of what was planted less than a decade ago.

Fall rye, meanwhile, has been gaining more popularity, driven by high-yielding hybrid varieties. The province saw almost 61,000 acres of hybrid rye planted in 2020, plus over 39,500 acres of open-pollinated varieties.

Rejean Picard, farm production adviser and cereal specialist with the province, said winter cereal expectations can change quickly, and will depend on the weather.

Moisture conditions are dry, he noted, although parts of the province saw over 40 millimetres of rain in the second week of August. Canola harvest, the typical crop stubble choice for planting winter cereals, has yet to heat up, he noted.

Despite the dry conditions, and the apparent risk that a crop seeded into such conditions may struggle, conditions might actually be “really great” for winter cereals if more rain falls in the near future, Picard said.

Although canola stubble is the usual go-to for seeding winter wheat due to snow catch, early seeding is just as important. photo: Alex Griffiths

Feed potential

Livestock producers, many of whom are increasingly desperate for feed, may also give winter cereal acres a boost in popularity, as a means of extended grazing. Drought conditions province-wide have sliced hay yields to a fraction of normal, now further exacerbated by an expected lack of second cut and expected corn silage yield shortfalls.

Lack of pasture supply has added to the problem. The Aug. 10 provincial crop report noted poor pasture conditions in all parts of the province. Multiple regions reported producers forced to feed on pasture, dipping into already short winter feed.

Producers hoping to keep more winter feed for the winter may therefore look to plant something for grazing.

It is a definite option, Picard said, adding that he has had conversations with producers on that topic this year.

“We’re gradually cooling down, so it’s better suited for cool-season crops like winter wheat or fall rye, so that would be a good option if we get some late rains now,” he said. “That might be sufficient to germinate some of these crops. In a few weeks, you could have some decent grazing there.”

Producers in grasshopper-problem areas, however, might find that a newly emerged winter cereal gets quickly eaten, Griffiths cautioned.

Producers worried about that might want to wait until later in the seeding window, or seed heavier on the headlands in anticipation of the pest pressure, he added.

Fall rye (right) shows more vigorous early-spring growth compared to winter wheat (left), which needs more heat to start growing. photo: Alex Griffiths

Dry year management

While producers might be tempted to chase moisture, Griffiths urged producers to stick to normal seeding depth for both winter wheat and fall rye.

Seeds planted more than an inch down are too deep, he said during a webinar put on by the provincial Agriculture Department Aug. 11.

“The key message is seed shallow and don’t wait for moisture,” he said. “Put it in the ground at the first good opportunity and the rain will eventually come, hopefully.”

Last fall, which was also dry, Griffiths noted that most winter wheat fields germinated with three-tenths of an inch of rain.

Griffith also urged producers to consider their variety if planting winter wheat. Some varieties, such as Wildfire or Goldrush, have better winter hardiness than the old standby variety, Emerson, as well as carrying a yield benefit, he argued, although he noted that Emerson is well known for its fusarium resistance.

In both winter cereals, he noted, an early seeding date is key.

The producer should choose to plant into stubble that will have some snow catch (a metric that favours canola) although two-row barley is a good option if canola comes off too late, he said. He acknowledged that peas, while early, also leave little behind to grab snow, while six-row barley can come with volunteer issues.

“When selecting a stubble, it’s nice to have some snow ‘catch-ability,’ but I find that, that is often overvalued and time of seeding is more important,” he said. “I would rather have winter wheat seeded the last week of August into a pea stubble than the third week of September into canola stubble.”

The bigger the crown, the better the chances of winter survival, he said.

In terms of yield, Griffiths equated late-September seeding to if spring wheat were seeded in the third week of May — lower yield potential, but not disastrous.

He further suggested producers target 30 plants per square foot, or a seeding rate of two to 2-1/2 bushels an acre.

“That extra half a bushel, even if it costs you $6 or $7 an acre, is very well worth it, in my opinion, for a competitive, vigorous stand, and it’s cheap insurance,” he said.

Producers should also put down half their nitrogen in the fall, so as to better manage spring, he urged. Likewise, he said, phosphorus and potassium are key for seedlings, but are less available if soil is cold, and producers should have some of both in or near the seed row.

Experts typically tag the first weeks of September as ideal time for planting winter cereals.


For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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