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Bigger wheat crop creates challenges

An increase in winter wheat planting is expected for the 2007-2008 season, as prices remain high and many growers try to recoup drought-related losses on corn, peanuts and soybeans.

Wheat prices have remained good longer than most experts projected, influencing a continued increase in acreage across the Southeast.

Despite sporadic rainfall, the region continues to feel the grips of a drought that plagued row crop production from Virginia to Florida in the spring and summer.

Worldwide, wheat production is down, creating a shortfall in some countries. A recent FAO report calls the situation of wheat stocks “worrying”. Sustained demand amid insufficient increase in production in 2007, especially among the major exporting countries, which are also among the leading stock holders, is expected to result in at least a 14 million metric ton draw down of world inventories to 143 million metric tons, the lowest in 25 years.

All these factors point to an increase in wheat planting in the Southeast. Virginia Tech Small Grains Specialist Wade Thomason says farmers who have never planted wheat, even those who have been out of production a few years, should keep in mind some basic wheat production information.

Thomason says new wheat growers should:

  • Choose the right places to plant wheat. Remember that wheat does not like wet feet and that yield potential is better on soils that will hold moisture in late spring.

  • Know your varieties. Know the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen varieties. What are the disease ratings? This can help direct scouting efforts. What is the BYDV symptom rating? Moderate fall aphid numbers in a variety with a poor BYDV ranking might result in a field being a candidate for fall insecticide application.

  • Plant early heading and day length sensitive varieties first to help avoid spring freeze.

  • Plant no-till acres 5 days earlier than you would plant conventional seeding to increase fall tillering.

  • Plant wheat timely and at a soil depth of 1 to 1.5 inches below the soil surface.

  • Get the seeding rate correct. Sixty percent of the yield potential for the crop is set when the drill leaves the field. You have already decided the genetics, the early season fertilization, and planted the stand 20 to 22 seeds per row foot in 7.5 inch rows, which are generally required for optimum yields.

  • Don't skimp on nitrogen. Fall tillers contribute the most to final yield. They have a bigger root system and develop bigger heads than later tillers.

  • Scout often this fall for aphids. Thresholds are important, but the price for the 2008 crop and the price of insecticide allow more flexibility in treatment options.

  • Weed control is a fall sport! Weeds are much easier to control when they are small and before they harden-off for winter.

  • Pay attention to tiller numbers in late winter. Fertilize at GS 25 if there are less than 100 tillers per square foot. Prioritize fields with lowest tiller numbers and fertilize these first.

Small grains grow well between 50 and 75 degrees F. High temperatures can slow growth, reduce yields, and cause insect problems. Depending upon the status of certain agronomic factors, temperatures below freezing (32 degrees F) can cause some damage, and temperatures below 15 degrees F can kill.

A sudden change in temperature, from 75 degrees F during the day to 30 degrees F at night, for example, can cause more damage than gradual change.

Small grains (except oats) do not require much water for good growth and high yields. Rainfall of 25 to 30 inches will produce adequate yields. However, 70 percent of the water is needed in the actively growing stages (jointing through dough, stages 7 to 10.5). Too much water early in the season will cause leaves to turn yellow, stunt growth, and in severe cases, reduce yields. Too much rain and high humidity will also contribute to a high incidence of diseases such as powdery mildew and glume blotch.

Small grains very seldom show signs of drought. When water is needed, leaves will begin to turn yellow or reddish-purple and twist or fold as in corn.

The drought that plagued row crops in the spring and summer of 2007, has continued on into the fall in many parts of the Southeast. October is typically the driest month of the year in the region, leaving some growers concerned about delaying wheat planting for expected rainfall.

Thomason says, “I don't think growers should wait for rain much after the optimum planting date for their region — unless there is a need for tillage. I expect we will give up more yield potential due to late planting than we will risk losing a stand by seeding into dry soil.”

High soil temperatures inhibit coleoptile elongation to some degree, so in hot soils it's a good idea to plant on the shallow side (maybe 1 inch).

Though the Southeast isn't likely to challenge the Midwest as America's breadbasket, there are opportunities for wheat production in the area. To avoid the same fate that resulted in lower corn yields, despite large increases in acreage, growers are urged to contact multiple sources of information before jumping into large scale wheat production.

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