Six Things That Make a Difference to a Winter Wheat Crop

Aug 24, 2018

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.”

Seed shallow

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.”

Seed heavy

“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