Michigan wheat specialists are setting their expectations low for this year’s winter wheat crop in hopes that Mother Nature surprises farmers at harvest.
Martin Nagelkirk of Michigan State University Extension says with the cool and wet start to the season, wheat is maturing the latest he’s seen in more than 30 years.
“It’s had a hard go of it,” he says. “Last fall was not friendly, and many fields were planted late. This winter was rough on it and caused a lot of winterkill, and then this spring had a lot of water and created weak stands.”
Winter wheat is a cool-season crop, which means maturing late isn’t necessarily a problem if the weather doesn’t turn too hot and dry during grain fill. “It’s really unusual that we’re this far behind in development, and that might have implications as far as diseases we see later,” Nagelkirk explains.
The biggest disease concern is fusarium head scab. Some farmers were able to apply fungicides this season, but for the first time for many, Nagelkirk says farmers will have to aerially apply.
“We’re not even able to drive through some of these wheat fields, so some fungicides have been applied by air,” he says. “While I don’t prefer it, those applications can work fairly well also. For some of the better-looking fields, especially for the white wheat subclass, I would be inclined to treat. I don’t think farmers have a choice but to do some of those by air.”
It could be worse. Nagelkirk says other states have a higher risk for scab because of their warmer temperatures. “They have some of the same concerns, but their development isn’t as delayed as Michigan. It’s just a strange year,” he says.
Wheat breeder and geneticist Eric Olson of Michigan State University says the best way to combat diseases such as fusarium head scab is through genetics and fungicides. “The entire soft wheat region in the eastern U.S. has really been at risk for fusarium this year,” he says. “So, states like Missouri and Illinois are seeing very high levels of scab right now.”
COMBAT DISEASE: Wheat breeder and geneticist Eric Olson of Michigan State University says the best way to combat diseases such as fusarium head scab is through genetics and fungicides.
The late harvest last year and a cool, wet 2019 are likely to lead to a lot of problems if not managed well, Olson says. “Some of the late harvest issues can cause preharvest sprouting, and falling number issues can happen particularly when we have excessive rain events and also wild temperature fluctuations,” he explains.
Grain fill will be the most critical time for wheat, and Nagelkirk says production could turn around with ideal conditions. “Some of these fields that look like only 50% stands still might do quite well, and I think there will be pockets of some very good wheat,” he says. A long stretch of dry days cooler than 80 degrees would lead to strong yields.
Olson believes Michigan wheat growers’ intensive management of wheat allows them to capture higher yields and margins but says part of the high yields also are attributed to a longer period for grain fill, most years.
“We have very cool weather during the month of June relative to other places like the hard wheat states of Kansas and Oklahoma, where their grain fill period can get cut short,” he explains. “Wheat’s a cool-season grass. It loves these cool night temperatures that we have. Wheat likes Michigan summers.”
As of June 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting Michigan wheat production at 38.48 million bushels, compared with 35.72 million in 2018. Yields are expected to average 74 bushels per acre, down 2 bushels from last year.
USDA estimates Michigan farmers will harvest 550,000 acres, which is up 8% from 2018. Harvested acres of winter wheat for grain are anticipated to be 490,000 acres, up 20,000 acres from a year ago.
Nationally, the agency expects winter wheat to average 50.5 bushels per acres and production to total 1.27 billion bushels, up 8% from 2018.
LATE SEASON: Martin Nagelkirk of Michigan State University Extension says with the cool and wet start to the season, wheat is maturing the latest he’s seen in more than 30 years.
According to a June 28 USDA acreage summary report, U.S. winter wheat planted area for 2019 is estimated at 45.6 million acres, down 5% from 2018. This represents the lowest all-wheat-planted area on record since records began in 1919.
The 2019 winter wheat planted area, at 31.8 million acres, is down 2% from last year but up 1% from the previous estimate. Of this total, about 22.7 million acres are hard red winter, 5.54 million acres are soft red winter, and 3.55 million acres are white winter.
Looking ahead to next season, Olson says growers can mitigate their disease risk by selecting varieties with different maturities and suggests looking at new higher-yielding varieties in the pipeline.
“We have very high levels of fusarium scab resistance with high-yield potential for soft white and soft red wheat varieties,” he says.
Olson also recommends growers do their homework at scabsmart.org, which is hosted by the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative to research variety trial results ahead of next year.
When preparing for harvest, Nagelkirk recommends farmers take the time to prepare, thoroughly clean equipment and be safe.
Heslip works as the Michigan anchor/reporter for Brownfield Ag News.