Across Western Canada farmers are facing similar challenges. For starters, trying to find a rotation that works in our short growing season is tough. Add in the other realities such as herbicide resistant weeds, increased disease pressure, soil health and moisture management, while trying to find a crop that will not only grow, but be profitable, seems like an impossible feat. No matter the challenge, winter wheat can help.
Put the brakes on weeds
Winter wheat is an effective tool for farms wanting an advantage over tough weeds. As it gets an early start in the spring, winter wheat is one step ahead of those difficult plants. According to the University of Saskatchewan, “winter wheat provides different weed competition than spring-sown crops. In a properly planned rotation, differences in crop competition can be exploited to control weeds, thereby reducing both herbicide use and production costs.”
Over the past few years, diseases have become equally aggressive as the weeds. It’s hard to find an area not impacted by Fusarium Head Blight and the disease is becoming more resistant to fungicides. Fusarium spores can survive over winter, sometimes on the roots of other plants, and often doesn’t show itself through symptoms until the summer months when it’s too late to do anything.
Winter wheat is able to stand up to FHB (as well as other diseases) better than spring wheat varieties, which may come as a surprise to those fighting fusarium year after year. According to the Government of Saskatchewan, “Winter wheat is susceptible, but often escapes infection because it flowers before fusarium spores are present.”
Emerson is a FHB resistant variety that is already known to Manitoba growers. And new varieties being released through Dr. Rob Graf’s breeding program at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at Lethbridge continue to be bred for disease resistance and will be an asset to Prairie rotations.
Give soil some TLC
Soil health is a key part of any farm’s sustainability goals. The University of Guelph is conducting a long-term study of the effects of winter wheat on soil health at their Ridgetown campus. The study’s findings show a yield bump in both corn and soybeans grown after winter wheat, and that in harsh weather, winter wheat offers additional soil protection, keeping it on the farm instead of losing it to the environment. The Ridgetown study also points out that building better soil is a long-term process, which can discourage some growers hoping for more immediate results, but with the proper rotation it can be achieved.
Make better use of moisture
Seeding into standing stubble keeps soil moisture in the ground. This helps water get to the crop rather than evaporating into the air. Additionally, winter wheat’s early spring growth makes good use of water that is readily available, rather than relying on regular rainfall during the hot summer months.
It has become clear that thinking outside of the box is crucial to a farm’s bottom line. The challenges facing fields are real, and growers are looking for solutions anywhere they can. Considering winter wheat as a solution could be just the right fit for your farm.
Seeding winter wheat can be challenging; particularly in less than optimal conditions as experienced last fall. There are some practices that can make a big difference to the ultimate success or failure of the crop.
Ken Gross, an agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative has studied several variables related to winter wheat. In a recent webinar series hosted by Manitoba Agriculture called CropTalk, he shared some of his findings.
Stubble height matters
When stubble height is higher, winter wheat tends to over-winter better. Gross recommends eight inches as the optimal height to trap snow on fields, keeping winter wheat well-insulated during cold winters.
“Our staff in Saskatchewan noticed that where the stubble was a little bit higher the crop had over-wintered better last year,” Gross explains. “There were areas in Saskatchewan where if you just had a little bit taller stubble and seeded into that, that made the difference between success and failure.”
Selecting the right genetics
Gross goes on to talk about variety selection, and the importance of choosing the correct variety for each producers field conditions and needs. This year there are about 20 varieties that can be grown in Manitoba, and the list is growing. Gross has further broken those down into three varieties that should be a good fit for most Manitoba fields: Emerson, Gateway, and Wildfire.
Emerson seems to be the most popular in Manitoba as it has good resistance to fusarium. Gateway is a short variety well-suited for areas where excess straw is an issue, plus it yields well. Finally, Wildfire is an exciting new variety that’s out this fall, and has the highest yield potential.
For Alberta and Saskatchewan growers, Gross says to pick a variety that aligns with cropping goals. “If you’re looking for drought resistance, or stripe rust resistance … there’s a variety for you, or if you’re looking for a homerun, there are new varieties out that I’m pretty excited about.”
His third tip that makes a difference is seed depth. “Seed depth was the biggest issue I saw between success and failure in Manitoba this year,” Gross says. “We like to see the seed go into the ground a half an inch to one inch deep.”
The plants that were seeded at the proper seeding depth ended up much healthier and showed more vigorous re-growth in the spring than the plants that were seeded too deep.
And slow down a little bit when seeding, Gross recommends. “Equipment bounce can cause seed depth issues, especially in the dry soils we saw last year.”
“To me [seeding rate] is the easiest way to improve your stand and to maximize your yield. A higher seeding rate will make a more uniform stand that will compete with weeds better and yield more. A more uniform stand means that the plants will tiller less in the spring, and you’ll have more main stems so timing your fungicide applications becomes much easier,” Gross says.
Gross also talks about the importance of 1,000 Kernel Rate (TKW), and that paying attention to it matters to calculate the correct seeding rate. “Small seeded varieties may be seeded at two bushels an acre and have upwards of 30 plants/sq ft, whereas a variety with larger seeds may need to be seeded at three bushels an acre to have the same number of plants per square foot.”
Treat your seed
Seed treatments seem unimportant, but can make a real difference with vigour and stand establishment, Gross says.
“It doesn’t show a difference every year, but it’s cheap insurance, and when we’re seeding into dry conditions like we likely will be this fall, everything you can put in your favour is to your advantage,” he says.
Focus on fertility
The most important tip of all is properly applying nitrogen. “Put at least half your N down in the fall. The seed head develops very early in the spring, and if you have some nutrients available for that plant then that means it’s going to develop a bigger seed head,” Gross says.
Yield penalties can occur by putting nitrogen on too late, up to a 30 per cent yield penalty by being three weeks late. Putting nitrogen down in fall means there will be nutrients available in the soil for early spring plant growth, which should result in a higher yield.
Gross ended the webinar stressing the importance of soil testing, and he broke the basic nutrient requirements down simply. Nitrogen, get half on this fall; phosphorus, maximum 40 lbs; potassium, has ability to add big yield boosts; sulfur, maximum 15 lbs.
Mother Nature will always have her own plans, but spending a little extra time preparing may help you reduce the risks.
For more information on winter wheat contact Ken Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If your winter wheat appears to be struggling, it may still need some time to recover. Western Winter Wheat agronomists urge growers not to assess their crop until at least halfway through spring seeding operations. Even in poor conditions, winter wheat has been known to bounce back; however, the winter wheat stand may behave more like spring wheat. This is because under these circumstances winter wheat is less competitive with weeds and has an increased risk to disease and pest pressures.
In some cases, for various reasons, a winter wheat crop may not survive the winter.
Only when the stand has been properly assessed and deemed unacceptable should a producer terminate a winter wheat crop and re-seed. If you do decide to re-seed, there are agronomic factors to consider:
It’s definitely an unfortunate circumstance, but terminating a winter wheat crop and re-seeding the field is sometimes the best option for your operation. Be sure to consult with your crop insurance agent to receive proper coverage. And, as always, if you have specific agronomic questions, contact your provincial winter wheat expert at: https://www.growwinterwheat.ca/our-agronomists/
Don’t be discouraged if Mother Nature has other plans for your winter wheat field this year and you have to terminate the crop. Growing winter wheat in Prairie Canada has the same risk of winterkill as Kansas, the largest winter wheat growing state, at only nine per cent. Plan to incorporate winter wheat into your crop rotation again this fall as in most years it pays to include it as part of a regular farm management system.
By Kayla Graham
This time of year calls for spring cleaning, spring seeding and a winter wheat spring assessment. The increasing hours of sunlight and warmer temperatures may entice you to conduct a crop assessment prematurely, but we encourage growers to just monitor their fields during seeding operations. A good rule of thumb is to not make a final decision on your crop until mid-way through spring seeding. After all, you’d need a little time to recover if you spent the last six months hibernating, too.
If you’ve given your crop time to recover then consider these next steps:
Only when the stand has been properly assessed and deemed unacceptable should a producer terminate a winter wheat crop and re-seed. If you do decide to re-seed, there are agronomic factors to be considered. Spray out the winter wheat stand as the crop will draw on moisture and nutrient reserves. Be cautious if re-seeding to a different type of wheat as wheat streak mosaic virus may carry over from infected winter wheat crops. If a herbicide was applied in the fall, be mindful of re-seeding restrictions. Additionally, remember to credit fall fertilizer.
For more information, contact your local Western Winter Wheat agronomist: https://www.growwinterwheat.ca/our-agronomists/
Fertilize in fall or spring? That’s the question winter wheat growers face every year at seeding time.
There are several advantages to applying nitrogen (N) fertilizer in fall. Usually, N is more economical in autumn than spring, applying it in fall ensures nutrients are immediately available to the crop, and a wet spring can make it difficult for growers to get on their fields to apply fertilizer. That’s true in Manitoba, where a series of wet springs in recent years often delayed fieldwork. Another advantage to applying N in fall is that you don’t have to handle all of that bulk in spring when you’re under time pressure.
There are also advantages to applying N in the spring. Winter wheat plants need a shot of energy as they break dormancy. The earlier N is available to the plants the more likely they are to grow vigorously, especially if they’ve been under stress from the winter.
“The biggest spring management tip I give is, as soon as you can get equipment on the field, get out there and put your fertilizer on because it’s going to need a little shot in the arm,” says Ken Gross, an agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative. “A little fertility early on will help it get going vigorously.”
If you’re broadcasting N in spring, do it early while the soil is still cool, Gross advises. Applying N too late may limit yield as the seed head for winter wheat is produced very early in the spring. Plants require early nutrition to develop the seed head to its greatest potential.
“On most fields, if you get it [N] on in April, you usually don’t have to worry about protecting it from loss because the soil is cool and you generally get rains in April to wash it into the soil,” Gross says. “If you can’t get there to fertilize the crop prior to the four leaf stage, it’s going to produce a smaller seed head with fewer florets.”
Gross says the recommended practice for wheat is to apply nitrogen in spring before the four-leaf stage, but there are advantages to applying it even sooner.
“Research shows that if you can get fertilizer on earlier, even before the plants start actively growing, you can get a 15 to 30 per cent yield increase.”
Another approach is to split nitrogen fertilizer applications between fall and spring. Doing so limits nitrogen losses to volatilization and leaching in fall while still giving plants the fertility they need. Because nitrogen fertilizer is a winter wheat grower’s most expensive input, no one wants to lose half of it to the environment.
How big should that split between fall and spring applications be? Brian Beres, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist in Lethbridge, suggests the greater application should be in spring, especially if growers are looking to maximize yields.
“Some of the follow-up work we’ve done shows that, as you start to push and intensify the system, the more favourable results will be from a split application where you’re putting the larger balance on in spring,” says Beres.
Beres notes that winter wheat yields up to 40 per cent more than CWRS wheat. Therefore, it requires more nitrogen, especially since winter wheat today yields twice as much as it used to. For that reason, growers should enhance their fertility practices if they’re looking for optimum yields.
It depends on what you want, Beres adds. “If you’re putting a lot of effort into making it a highly intensive crop, then it’s going to pay off to split applications between what’s put down at planting and what’s top dressed in spring,” says Beres. “If you’re more risk averse and shooting for lower yield targets, you’re probably fine putting down the majority of N at planting.”
After a long winter, you may be eager to see how your winter wheat made it through the season, but don’t jump the gun just yet. A proper spring assessment at the right time is a vital management tool in a successful winter wheat production system. Assessing the crop condition too early in the season can be misleading as brown material many not be a sign of winterkill, and green leaves may not necessarily mean the crop has survived the winter.
Take a breath and be patient. Much of the Prairies experienced dry conditions during the 2017 planting season and this could have led to variable growth stages in winter wheat. Some fields may range from un-germinated seeds, to seeds sprouted below the ground, all the way up to the three-leaf stage.
Regardless of your fall seeding situation, winter wheat plants need time to recover in the spring. The Western Winter Wheat Initiative encourages growers and industry agronomists to give winter wheat plants some R&R. Practice patience and do not conduct a spring assessment too early. An in-field test doesn’t need to be undertaken until midway through spring seeding.
So allow your plant stand to rally and recover. Winter wheat tillers aggressively, and research has indicated that even thin stands can yield well. Plant populations that would be unacceptable for spring wheat can still produce a profitable winter wheat crop.
If your crop is looking a little weak coming out of the winter, fertility can help. Applying nitrogen as soon as possible can give winter wheat a boost.
To give your winter wheat the best start this spring, contact your local agronomist or visit growwinterwheat.ca.
Canadian weather is less predictable than a two-year-old and just as destructive. Nobody appreciates that more than winter wheat growers in Western Canada in 2017. While they typically rely on good moisture conditions in late April, May and early June, they instead faced the first drought in many years over much of the Prairies. Fortunately, those growers and their winter wheat crops were up to the challenge.
“We didn’t necessarily have ideal conditions for winter wheat this year,” said Paul Thoroughgood, Regional Agrologist – Prairie Region for Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Western Winter Wheat Initiative. “That said, everyone I spoke to harvested average to above average crops and also saw less disease pressure due to low humidity.”
Given the conditions, the winter wheat results for Western Canada, according to Stats Canada – 535,000 acres seeded in fall 2016 (2017 crop) – represented something that farmers don’t often experience: a pleasant surprise.
No umbrella required
“Most of us were impressed at how well winter wheat yielded, especially in the dry southern half of the Prairies,” said Thoroughgood. “The last time we had a drought this severe was…so long ago I can’t even remember. Where I farm in Moose Jaw we had 0.7 inches of rain for the entire growing season, but we made the best of it, aided by subsoil moisture and some cool nights that allowed plants to recover.”
The dry conditions meant total winter wheat acres were down from last year, but growers shouldn’t read much into that.
“This fall, even some experienced winter wheat farmers opted not to seed because of the dryness. That’s not a reason to write off winter wheat; it’s just not intuitive to seed in extremely dry conditions, but those of us who did had pretty good results.”
While the decrease in winter wheat yield over last year made for a smaller gap than usual between it and spring wheat, winter wheat has still outperformed its spring counterpart in the majority of the past five years. For Thoroughgood, that’s why it makes a lot of sense to grow both spring and winter wheat on your farm.
Diversity makes a difference
“One thing this season has taught us is the importance of diversity in your crops. When you look at conditions over the past few years, we had two wet falls and one dry one. In my area, we went from an abysmal lentil crop and good results for soybeans in 2016 to the exact opposite in 2017.”
With more diverse weather systems being the norm now due to climate change, climate variability or both, the value of having crops that you can harvest from August 1 – like winter wheat – right through to October 1 – such as soybeans – can’t be overstated.
“That may be our new reality now, to have crops that cover the gamut of weather variability. In light of the wild fluctuations in growing season conditions that we’ve seen lately, there’s a strong case to be made for hedging your bets and not having all your eggs in one basket. Winter wheat is a great way to add some of that diversity to your rotation.”
We had such a fantastic turnout at our Fields of Gold plot tours this summer! Thanks to everyone for coming to see how well our winter wheat varieties perform in real-world conditions.
There are many growers who want to learn about the benefits of winter wheat crops, and we had a lot of visits to our test plots. Three entries were drawn at each field tour for a chance to win the grand prize! From those, one lucky entry was drawn to win the $2500 Gold Bar!
Congratulations Gary Drieschner on winning the $2500 Gold Bar!
How can growers add winter wheat to their cropping plans?
By John Dietz
It’s too early to know the market outlook for a crop that won’t be harvested until July 2018, and it’s too early to know the field conditions for planting next September, but a couple of good choices now could set the stage for the opportunity to plant winter wheat during the 2018 harvest season.
Now is the time to put winter wheat on your planting radar to achieve successful results, according to Janine Paly, Alberta agronomist for the Western Winter Wheat Initiative (WWWI). Winter wheat has many benefits for growers who manage to work it into their production calendar.
“Growers are starting to plan and pre-buy seed now for next spring,” Paly says. “To work winter wheat into your plan, it’s essential to select an appropriate spring crop to precede winter wheat.” Planning to have stubble available for the optimum winter wheat seeding window in your region is the first step towards achieving a successful crop.
“We suggest growers seed into canola stubble,” Paly says. “Canola stubble has the best snow-trapping ability; it provides good weed sanitation, and it provides a huge yield benefit.”
Alberta Agriculture research and crop insurance data indicates that in direct-seeding systems wheat yields increase 10 to 20 per cent in canola stubble in Alberta. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and depending on the winter wheat variety, the yield benefit can be as much as 40 per cent.
“When selecting a canola variety, we encourage selecting an early- to mid-season variety or try to plant the canola as early as possible in the spring for an early harvest,” suggests Paly. The stubble field should be available on September 1 for best success with planting winter wheat.
“The taller the stubble, the better, the more potential there is for snow trapping. Four inches of snow insulation will provide enough buffer for the winter wheat to survive a Prairie winter.”
“We recommend having a contingency plan in case the canola stubble isn’t available,” says Paly. Canola stubble isn’t the only option for winter wheat. Stubble from oats, barley or forage crops can be good options, too. Wheat stubble isn’t recommended because it can make a green bridge for wheat streak mosaic or a mite to move onto the winter wheat crop.
Preparation and planning are key to being successful as harvest operations continue after the first canola comes off.
The selected fields need at least 10 to 14 days before the new crop is planted. Ideally, during that short window, some soil testing can be done, and a crop of canola volunteers will emerge in time for a pre-seeding burnoff.
You may not get that 10- to 14-day break, so it’s important to have the inputs, machinery, and manpower ready to plant while the rest of the harvest is underway, then the soil testing and weed control can be done after the crop has emerged. “Getting your inputs and equipment lined up early will help in a successful transition to getting that first crop into the ground,” encourages Paly.
Online help with planning and other information on winter wheat can be found through the WWWI website: wwwi.wpengine.com or you can contact your local agronomist.
By John Dietz
Winter wheat is a low-input, low-yield crop. True or False?
There’s no market for winter wheat. True or False?
No varieties of winter wheat are suitable here. True or False?
False, to all of them, answers Ken Gross, agronomist at Brandon, Manitoba, for the Western Winter Wheat Initiative (WWWI) and Ducks Unlimited Canada.
Those are just three of many myths associated with the fall-seeded, high-potential wheat. Gross runs into myths frequently among growers and at meetings – and likes to bust them with facts.
“The biggest myth is the ‘low input, low yield’ idea. That’s just not the case,” Gross says. “When they treat their winter wheat the same way they treat canola – putting on the fertilizer for a high yield – they tend to get pretty good results.”
The past growing season has been dry to very dry on the southern Prairies. It provided a great test for winter wheat potential. Ninety-day precipitation is mostly 20 to 60 percent of normal, according to WeatherFarm.com
“A lot of areas only got an inch or two of rain, yet I’m seeing winter wheat yields at anywhere from 60 to 95 bushels per acre from different producers, on dryland. Those are pretty good results in a dry year. We never dreamed of yields like that in the 1980s (when it also was dry), but we’re getting them now. That shows the potential of the crop,” he says.
Gross suspects the “low input, low yield” myth relates to the practice of fertilizing winter wheat with a nutrient package similar to spring wheat. That’s not a good idea, and it leads to the next myth, low protein in winter wheat.
“Winter wheat yields 20 to 40 per cent more than spring wheat, across the Prairies, but you have to fertilize for that. Fertilized at the same rate as spring wheat, it will go into yield and will leave you a little shy on protein. If you put down the proper amount of nitrogen, your protein level will be much closer to 11 per cent or more,” the agronomist myth-buster says.
Two Myths Busted
Back in the 1980s, the only winter wheat seed available was for a tall, lodging-prone line known as Northstar.
Plant breeders in Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Winnipeg have delivered many options for winter wheat in the past 20 years, he says.
“The supply of varieties is no longer a concern, despite the myth,” Gross says.
Depending on where you are, there are seven to nine Canada western red varieties and five to eight Canada western general purpose varieties for choice – with more coming. Selections can be made for disease resistance or milling quality as well as yield.
Most varieties are public, supplied through Secan or Canterra, but not all. FP Genetics, Seed Depot, and Western Ag also have winter wheat seed to sell.
Winter kills. Survival on the Prairies is similar to the rate in Kansas, the largest winter wheat growing state in the U.S. Newest varieties are even better.
Low quality. Our winter wheat is highly valued for the white flour colour and high flour yield. New varieties have improved protein. Millers like winter wheat quality.
Hard to sell. Partially true, but look beyond the local elevator to millers, ethanol markets, and feed markets. Before buying the seed, identify who wants to buy that type of winter wheat.
Too dry to seed. Seed shallow and wait. Less than a half-inch of rain will germinate the crop.
No time to seed. Partially true. Doing both seeding and harvesting in August or September is a juggling act. But, that’s just the first time. In the long run it opens a window to less pressure in both spring and fall, while providing a window to cash flow right off the hop at harvest.