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Mid-South farmers preparing to plant large '08 wheat crop

The prospect of $6 wheat next July is too tempting for many Mid-South growers to pass up. But there are reasons the price is good — and some, like seed availability, are destined to make the crop harder to grow, or even plant.

“Seed is definitely an issue,” says Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension wheat specialist. “Two months ago, the agriculture industry thought we'd have more wheat seed available — and there still isn't reason for panic. But the popular varieties are tight, tight. If you've just now decided to plant wheat and want a particular variety, you're likely out of luck.”

There are varieties available that farmers don't want but will be forced to plant. However, before doing so, “they need to study up on how (the varieties) performed nearby. There are varieties being brought in and pushed that shouldn't be grown in some areas of the Delta.”

Farmers should check disease packages and ratings. “Those are critical and some varieties shouldn't be planted because they're susceptible — or very susceptible — to stripe rust.”

All the wheat production meetings Kelley has recently attended “are hitting hard on variety availability and selection, but there are other topics that farmers are focused on.”

Last Easter's freeze keeps coming up, he says. “I reckon lots of folks would rather forget about that horrible freeze. But there are some good lessons we can learn from last season.”

The biggest of those lessons is variety maturity and planting time. “What I've stressed is to approach planting this crop with more contemplation. Lots of growers say, ‘I want X and Y varieties, and I'm not going to pay too much attention to maturity.’

“Well, maturity is an important factor, especially when coupled with planting dates. There are early-, medium- and late-maturing varieties. I've stressed that the late-maturing varieties should be planted first.”

Last year, the very early-maturing varieties that were planted early were much further along than they should have been when the Easter freeze hit. Those were hurt worse than other varieties.

As the wheat price has risen, the more the preferred variety supply has shrunk. “Some growers a couple of months ago weren't planning on planting wheat. But with current prices, they can't hold off, so they'll be stuck with variety choices further down the list.

“This situation actually reminds me of what happened with corn replanting after the Easter freeze. Farmers were forced to plant whatever varieties they could find.”

Wheat is a hot prospect in Mississippi, as well. In a recent newsletter, Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension wheat specialist, said planting dates might appear to be “a relatively trivial factor in the grand scheme of wheat production (particularly since wheat is often grown for forage), but is absolutely critical to high grain yield.

“For example, a summary of management practices from a recent Kentucky Wheat Production Contest (where the winners all exceeded 100 bushels per acre) showed only one entrant planted his field prior to the recommended optimal time.”

Planting too early “unnecessarily exposes wheat to potential development, fertility, weed and numerous pest problems which ultimately reduce yield potential.”

Southern winters are often mild and can actually aggravate the situation, “because the onset of dormancy may vary considerably from year to year and temperatures may be warm enough to encourage substantial growth during the winter. Thus, growers accustomed to gaining developmental advantages from planting summer crops early, such as corn and soybeans, may run into severe problems by using the same strategy with winter wheat.”

Among potential adverse effects from excessive fall growth: “winter and/or spring freeze damage, development of barley yellow dwarf virus, Hessian fly and armyworm infestation, disease problems, more weed competition, poor nutrient use, and increased lodging. In fact, growers in north Mississippi this year reported yield reductions up to 90 percent from freeze injury to a specific variety, depending upon planting date.”

With seed expenses increasing, Kelley and Larson are often asked about tweaking seeding rates.

“It depends on when you're planting. Is it early? Late? It also depends on whether you're drilling the crop in,” says Kelley. “With the price of seed wheat and scarcity of many varieties, folks are paying a lot more attention to seeding rates. It's easy to tie up quite a lot of money in seed. A lot of growers are wondering about the 3-bushel seeding rate they've used in the past.”

And in many instances, they're right to wonder. “I think we can get by with less seed than what we've planted in the past.”

In terms of ground preparation for a healthy wheat crop, good drainage is a list-topper. “Some plant no-till, some have a conventional seedbed. But the biggest thing that will help the crop is drainage. Many are putting in drain furrows and others are planting wheat on beds. Either of those methods works well as long as the water is kept off the field.”

Larson says work done by Kelley shows wheat growers should “strive to establish 1 million to 1.3 million plants per acre… Wheat seed size can range from 11,000 to 18,000 seeds per pound, so a grower should base seeding rate on the number of seeds (seeds per pound), rather than on the volume or weight of the seeds (bushels per acre) — particularly since seed prices are high.

“Suggested seeding rates vary considerably for different planting methods. Planting with a grain drill should produce good emergence (80 to 90 percent of planted seed) under normal conditions. Thus, plant about 1.1 million to 1.6 million seeds per acre (about 75 to 125 pounds of seed per acre) with a grain drill. This seeding rate corresponds to 18 seeds per foot for 7-inch drill spacing, or 26 seeds per foot for 10-inch drill spacing.”

As for growers broadcasting and incorporating seed, higher seeding rates should be used “because emergence success will likely be modest (60 to 70 percent of planted seed). Growers broadcasting small grain seed on the soil surface should generally utilize very high seeding rates, because emergence and seedling survival can be relatively low (around 50 percent of planted seed).”

Can wheat yield be improved by drilling more seed than is standard?

“Wheat grain yield is relatively unresponsive to seeding rate unless planting dates vary considerably later than normal,” says Larson. “In fact, an Arkansas study showed no significant yield difference for seeding rates from 60 to 180 pounds per acre.

“Thus, utilizing a drill and conservative seeding rates may substantially improve your bottom line. Healthy wheat has tremendous tillering ability to compensate for variable stands and the South's warm winter climate typically allows wheat to fulfill this potential. Higher than normal seeding rates may also promote lodging and disease infection.”

Plenty of saved wheat seed will be planted this fall. “Last harvest, the price was already good and many farmers figured it might be a good idea to bin some seed,” says Kelley. “This year, I think there was more saved seed than in recent years. And that should help some with the tight supply.”

Last year, Arkansas farmers planted 800,000 acres of wheat. Currently, seed dealers are reporting wheat seed sales are up 25 to 50 percent.

“Conservatively, we can add about 30 percent more acreage and that takes us to around 1.1 million. But taking into account saved seed and other things, I think there could easily be 1.3 million acres of wheat. We'll have well over 1 million wheat acres for sure provided the weather provides a window for planting.”

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