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Is this the year that winter wheat makes a comeback?

Squeezing winter wheat seeding into a crammed harvest period is usually a big issue

Will there be an upswing in winter wheat acres this year?

One of the biggest drawbacks is timing — you have to get your spring-seeded crop off the field before sowing winter wheat.

But that won’t be as big an issue in a big chunk of Alberta this year. An estimated 508,000 acres were never seeded this spring and a bone-dry summer has meant an early harvest in many areas, particularly in the south.

“The risk with current areas that have unseeded acres is that those regions continue to receive rainfall — leaving those fields still in a wet state,” said Janine Paly, an agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative.

“This could result in wet fields come spring, leaving the fields potentially unseeded for an additional year. I hope this is not the case, and growers are able to either plant a fall crop or a spring crop.

“If growers are able to access the land this fall in the regions that have received higher-than-normal precipitation, this would allow a fall cereal to utilize the moisture and any moisture that may arrive in the spring.”

Proponents of winter wheat cite a host of other benefits, including higher yields than its spring-seeded cousin, spreading out next year’s harvest because it matures earlier, and as a tool to combat weed resistance fostered by tight rotations.

Still, fall-seeded acres of winter wheat in Alberta are down sharply from the peak of 121,000 in 2008, falling by half before rebounding somewhat to the 70,000- to 80,000-acre range in recent years.

The harvest time crunch has been one of the biggest issues, said University of Saskatchewan plant sciences professor, Brian Fowler, who has been breeding winter wheat for more than four decades.

But there have been considerable agronomic improvements, particularly for winterkill.

“Our winter losses are probably as low or lower than they are in Washington state or farther south in the Great Plains area,” said Fowler.

The rise of no till has also helped because stubble catches snow, which creates an insulating blanket (at least until a chinook comes along). But again, the tight harvest window comes into effect — “our earliest crop to come off is probably peas,” said Fowler — and there will be little or no stubble if an unseeded field was cultivated.

On the other hand, winter wheat is a low-input crop and that will be especially attractive this year as so many producers have been slammed by last year’s poor harvest and/or this year’s drought.

“The major input you have to worry about with winter wheat is fertilizer,” said Fowler, adding most pests in winter wheat can be controlled with the more inexpensive herbicides.

Then there’s the yield, which is 15 to 40 per cent higher than Canadian Western Red Spring wheat, according to the Western Winter Wheat Initiative.

Still, Prairie grain growers aren’t convinced. Saskatchewan and Manitoba grow more winter wheat, but the trend in those provinces is the same as in Alberta. Total Prairie fall-seeded acreage in recent years has been under the 300,000-acre mark — half of the record 615,000 acres seeded a decade ago.

“I think it’s the inconvenience factor that has restricted the growth of the crop,” said Fowler, who has released over 15 winter wheat varieties in his career.

“From my experience over the years, once a farmer gets out of the winter wheat rotation, it does present problems to get back in.”

If there’s decent weather and a speedy harvest, “then I think you’ll probably see a little more winter wheat go in the ground this fall,” said Fowler.

Optimal seeding dates range from mid-August in Peace Country to mid-September in the south, according to the Western Winter Wheat Initiative, a collaboration of Ducks Unlimited Canada, Bayer, and Richardson International. The organization has a detailed production manual at www.growwinterwheat.ca.

— With staff files


About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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