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Bin-busting yields come down to fundamentals, teamwork

Orientaly/Getty Images combine harvesting wheat
WHEAT LEADERS: This year’s National Wheat Yield Contest showed off top yields across the Northeast, Michigan and Ohio.
Darren Grumbine of Pennsylvania and Nick Suwyn of Michigan are among the national winners.

Darren Grumbine never entered the Wheat Growers Contest before 2020. Turns out his first time was the charm.

He came in fourth place in the dryland winter wheat category, yielding 152.86 bushels an acre.

The contest is put on by the National Association of Wheat Growers. It’s a testament to the banner year for wheat in the Northeast, Michigan and Ohio. Nick Suwyn, who farms in western Michigan, got third place nationally and first place in Michigan with 170.24 bushels per acre on nonirrigated ground.

Grumbine farms 600 acres near Palmyra, Pa. His typical crop rotation is corn, soybeans, wheat and double-crop soybeans. This year he planted Pioneer 25R77. He typically doesn’t put an emphasis on high-yielding wheat, instead going for more shorter-season varieties to get double-crop soybeans planted and harvested.

But a neighbor convinced him to try something a little different, so he switched to a more high-yielding wheat. The contest plot was also in a field with a history of manure application. But he gives most of the credit to Mother Nature.

“Everybody was good around here this year, and it was that weather back there in April and May. Wheat was loving that great early April weather. It was a very weather-driven yield," he says. "We were super happy because we didn't do anything to that field that we didn't do to all the other fields.”

His overall wheat yield averaged 114 bushels an acre.

Focus on fundamentals

“We’re always learning. We are kind of dialing in on our fundamentals,” Grumbine says.

And what are those fundamentals? Knowing the soils he grows in, taking soil tests, always looking at soil cation ratios, and learning more about microbes and how they can benefit his plantings. “We’re learning to use all the tools that we have,” he says.

But Grumbine is willing to make changes when needed. For example, this year’s wheat, planted in fall 2019, was planted in 15-inch rows instead of 7.5-inch rows. “The ground was hard, and I wanted to plant wheat and the drill couldn’t go into the ground,” he says.

After talking to some Extension educators and even some fellow farmers, he decided to plant wheat using his corn planter with row cleaners. He says the wider spacing allowed airflow into the plantings. He also got a good straw crop.

This fall he planted his wheat into corn stubble, the first time he’s ever done that. So far, so good. The wheat has come up nicely in most of his fields, he says.

A repeat winner

There’s no substitution for a good management team, according to Nick Suwyn. Throw in early planting and timely rains, and that’s a recipe for a banner yield.

In the west-central Michigan county of Barry, Suwyn farms 2,800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, while raising cattle with his dad, Dale Suwyn. The field operations team also includes his uncles Dick, Doug and Don. “It’s not just me by any means,” Nick says.  

This year they had 450 acres of wheat. Wheat has always added value to the farm as they feed it to the livestock. It also frees up land for manure application. “But why not push for higher yields,” says Nick, who sources Syngenta products and used AgriPro SY576 to garner the national recognition.

He says his “seed guys” — Marvin and Dan Heasley with Heasley Seeds — have been instrumental in helping pick varieties suited for his farm.

To the naysayers of intensively managed wheat, he says, “If you want to push your yields, you can't not invest in the ground and the crop and hope it’s going to yield.”

The sandy loam field was cultivated and planted at the beginning of October 2019, before the sloppy, wet fall stalled harvest and other wheat plantings. The crop emerged beautifully and filled out nice.

“We did a herbicide application in the fall and, again, right away at green-up in the spring. We will usually do a dry pass with some sulfur and nitrogen and micros, and then we'll go through and stream 28% nitrogen and apply more sulfur and micros a couple times throughout the year. We can spoon-feed it with streamer nozzles on the sprayer.”

Treatments also include a couple applications of fungicide and Palisade, a growth regulator. “We’re also scouting a lot and looking for any adverse things caused by weather or insects,” he says. “Our agronomist, Travis Christian, is extremely helpful.”

Nick is a two-time winner in the contest, as he also took third place nationally last year with 165.65 bushels per acre on dryland with AgriPro SY-100.

This year’s top-yielding field was harvested July 15, with an average yield of 132 bushels per acre. According to Jody Pollok-Newsom, executive director of the Michigan Wheat Program, wheat yields across the state were variable, for the most part, ranging from the low 70s to 130 bushels per acre.

“We do a lot of tweaking to figure out what works and what doesn't work,” Nick says, noting that they also utilize tissue samples to see what’s happening inside the plant.

His advice for growers looking to improve wheat yields and profits: “Don’t expect everything you do to be a slam dunk. Sometimes you look back and say, ‘Huh, that was a waste of money.’ But how do you figure it out unless you try it? Don't be afraid to see if you change your outcome a little bit by implementing some stuff throughout the year — different products or fungicides or fertilizer.”

Suwyn says they rely on a group of advisers, including family, seed dealers and an agronomist. “It really takes a team, and the Lord is at the center of it.”



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