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High costs, good prices suggest wheat farmers need to change

Variety selection, fertilization practices, and pest management routines may need hard scrutiny as Southwest wheat farmers try to produce a profitable crop during a period of high grain prices and significantly higher production costs.

Most growers tried to capitalize on high market prices this spring with fungicide applications and timely nitrogen fertilization in late winter or early spring. But they may need to do more considering fertilizer and diesel fuel costs are at all-time highs.

“We need to make farmers aware of newer varieties,” says Tom Peeper, Oklahoma State University. “It may be time to change, especially to varieties with better disease resistance.”

He says with current production costs farmers need $7 to $8 per bushel wheat to make a profit. “With $1,000 a ton fertilizer and $4 a gallon diesel, they need to think about doing a better job of weed and disease control.”

Weeds are his specialty and he says the mix has changed for many Oklahoma growers. “Twenty years ago we were working on cheat and some wild oat control. Now we have a more mixed species problem.”

He says in the past farmers planted a wheat and ryegrass mixture for grazing. That combination may have put a few pounds on winter stockers, but it created a severe problem for grain production. “Ryegrass doesn't mix well with wheat,” Peeper says. “We have to control ryegrass.”

He says ryegrass is currently the number one target weed for Oklahoma wheat growers, “by far. We don't always see ryegrass early. It blows in or geese bring it in and then we see it pop above the wheat canopy late. I think we will need a fall and a spring application if we really want to clear it up.”

With wheat markets up, Peeper says elevators and milling companies will not accept wheat with ryegrass seed. “A 40-cent per pound of gain on a stocker is not justification to keep ryegrass in wheat,” he says.

Herbicide timing is critical. “We can go either too early or too late with a fall treatment. Some wheat did not emerge until Christmas in 2007.”

He says some herbicides have residual activity that may “hang around and cause problems. The Oklahoma Mesonet is a good tool to help schedule herbicide treatments. Predictions include wind speed and direction. That helps schedule spray applications.”

Peeper is also concerned about low fertility in wheat fields.

“Next year farmers may skimp on fertilizer,” he says. “The cost will be up and bankers may make the decision.”

He says lenders may approve the same dollar amount per acre for production they did the year before, but with higher costs, “that's not enough.”

Cutting back on seeding rate might make sense, however. “They can back off on seeding rate to 60 pounds per acre without getting hurt,” he says. “If they graze wheat, they'll want to plant more than that and we don't recommend anything less than 60 pounds per acre.”

He says growers can cut back on tillage, but they still need a good seedbed to get every seed possible up to a healthy seedling, especially if they cut back on seeding rates. “Wheat farmers need to make every trip across the field as efficient as possible. GPS systems, as farmers can afford them, will help. They'll see some advantages.”

He says spray rigs and fertilizer applicators will be the two most important units for GPS technology. “Planting equipment would be next.”

He expects to see more banded phosphate versus broadcast applications. “And we'll have more strip-till production.

“Wheat farmers will try all they can do to produce the highest yield possible at the lowest cost. They are asking more questions of dealers and Extension specialists. Some dealers say they are seeing more soil samples come in than ever before.”

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