Winter wheat clears its first hurdle

Manitoba’s winter wheat crop is looking good at first blush, although producers are mostly in a holding pattern until weather really warms

Manitoba’s relatively few winter wheat acres are in a good spot going into the growing season, as the mercury begins to rise.

Why it matters: Winter cereals appear to have weathered the winter, but now growers are caught waiting for warmer temperatures.

Experts say they are not expecting to see the winterkill and poor stand establishment that have plagued winter wheat for the last few years. By May 2018, a hard spring and poor growing conditions had led to insurance claims on 33,000 of the almost 70,000 winter wheat acres seeded the previous fall, the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation said at the time.

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Ken Gross, agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative, says all fields he is monitoring this year, however, show good survival.

“The plant counts are right up there in the 20-plus plants per square foot range, which is excellent,” he said.

Likewise, he added, his team has seen promising results when gauging root growth through bag tests.

The province enjoyed a relatively mild winter, despite a lack of protective snow cover, he noted.

Unlike early 2019, when temperatures consistently plummeted below -30 C in January and February, temperatures this year stayed much closer to seasonable, although most of Manitoba reported below-average snowfall.

At the same time, however, the so-far cold spring has done little to kick-start winter wheat.

The province’s system of winter wheat soil probes, installed to measure temperature at seeding depth in Melita, Carberry, Roblin and Arborg, still registered overnight soil temperatures at or below freezing and highs near or below 5 C as of April 21.

“Once it starts staying above zero, around that 5° mark, then the winter wheat will really start taking off,” Gross said.

Most winter wheat plants were still dormant as of mid-April, provincial cereal specialist Anne Kirk said during the first provincial Crop Talk webinar April 22.

At the same time, she noted, she also expects winter survival to be high, given the weather this winter.

Getting a count

The province puts optimal winter wheat stands at 20 to 30 plants per square foot, although agronomists also advise producers not to automatically give up on fields falling below that threshold.

“We do know that winter wheat actually has a huge ability to compensate for lower plant stands by tillering,” Kirk said. “Research has shown that stands of, say, seven to eight plants per square foot could yield about 70 or 80 per cent of normal.”

Field variability adds some challenge to early stand counts, she noted, and urged producers to sample from various points in their field to get a comprehensive picture.

The crop’s tillering ability will require nitrogen, however, provincial crop nutrition specialist John Heard warned, urging producers to apply their fertilizer as early as possible.

“I would say as soon as the ground is fit to be out there is the time to pull the trigger,” he said.

As with other commodities, winter cereal acres in Manitoba are suffering from last year’s lack of field work. Delayed harvest in 2019 left little time for fertilizer or tillage — the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation eventually reported hundreds of thousands of unharvested acres last year — after fall rains and early snowstorms kept equipment out of the field and farmers scrambling to simply get crop in the bin.

For winter cereal growers, the challenging harvest put a stop to their typical fall nitrogen applications. Fall nitrogen typically eases the urgency in making nitrogen available to the crop early in spring, Heard noted.

“In years where we have stress on the plant and we have thin stands, we know that early nitrogen helps encourage more tillering to help fill those stands in,” he said, although he acknowledged that agronomists have yet to see those types of thin stands this year.

Fertility trials have played with applications as late as mid-May, he said, although those trials did also involve some fall nitrogen.

The province currently suggests about 150 pounds per acre of nitrogen for winter wheat if there is low carry-over from the previous fall, according to Heard (120 pounds an acre if soil test levels are in the mid-range). Fall rye recommendations are lower at 85 pounds an acre, although Heard says hybrid rye, an increasingly popular crop, according to the Western Winter Wheat Initiative, sits at 100 pounds an acre of recommended nitrogen.

Most of that is dribbled UAN, Heard noted, although he urged producers to watch the weather and add a nitrogen inhibitor to avoid loss if they are expecting warm, windy and dry weather.

Gross urged producers to get nitrogen applications done before crops reach the fourth- or fifth-leaf stage.

“We’re looking to tell producers that if they had difficulty getting their fertilizer on last fall, to have it lined up and ready to go now, because that early fertility is really important to maximizing your yield,” he said.

About the author

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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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