By Shari Narine
The high return on winter wheat is one reason why producers keep their fields active in what used to be the off-season.
“Producers know that winter wheat is one of the more profitable crops out there,” said Ken Gross, provincial agrologist in Manitoba with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative.
Gross says interest in planting winter wheat was high this fall, but he is uncertain as to how many acres that means in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The extremely wet fall, particularly in Manitoba, may have driven the numbers down.
But it’s the increase in moisture that makes winter wheat popular.
“We are having these wet falls, so it’s nice to have a crop in there that makes use of that moisture so [producers] can get on the fields the next spring. That has become an issue here in Manitoba. Wet falls and springs make it harder to get your spring crop in so if you have a winter crop using that moisture, that’s a good thing, too,” he said.
Winter wheat also allows producers to get cereals back into their rotation, which breaks up certain weed and disease cycles.
Seeding winter wheat also lends producers peace-of-mind.
“The guys … get stressed out in the spring when they can’t seed, so it makes them feel pretty good to have a crop in the ground,” said Gross.
But winter wheat does not come without its own challenges. Gross offers a simple formula for success: use treated winter wheat, seed heavily, and fertilize appropriately.
Because of the difficulty in getting summer crop off the field on time, many producers are unable to seed winter wheat in early September, which is the optimum period.
“A seed treatment just seems to provide a little bit of a boost there, a little more protection, and the crop seems to come out in the spring a little more vigorously if it’s been treated,” said Gross.
Seeding at a higher rate — 30 plus plants per square foot instead of the traditional 23 — produces a more uniformed crop and a slightly higher yield.
The denser planting produces more main stems and less tillers, says Gross, and allows producers to deal easier with fusarium, a concern in Manitoba.
Nitrogen management is also a key factor. Gross recommends nitrogen be applied in early spring, but wet fields often makes that difficult and without that early spring application of nitrogen, yield potential can be adversely impacted.
“So another good way of doing that is to put it down in the fall, and I’m starting to see more and more guys putting nitrogen down in the fall,” he said. Now, many producers are meeting 50 per cent to the full amount of their nitrogen requirements in the fall.
It is also important to soil test for nutrients and then apply the nutrients required at the appropriate time.
“Some guys have the ability to put all their nutrients down when they seed, so as long as they protect it, especially their nitrogen, that’s a key one,” said Gross.
In Manitoba, winter wheat out yields spring wheat by 20 to 40 per cent.
“It needs more nutrition to reach its yield potential, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind. You don’t fertilize your winter wheat at the same levels you would with your spring wheat,” said Gross.
Fungicide use must also be considered carefully. Gross notes that chemical companies like Bayer have done the research to show that there are benefits in using a fungicide on winter wheat even in a dry year.
The bottom line, says Gross, is that there are financial, crop-rotation, and peace-of-mind advantages to growing winter wheat when done right.