Even if their ground is still dry, some growers may seed winter wheat and cross their fingers
Recent rainfall across Alberta may have more producers considering winter wheat this year.
“With the rains we’ve had lately, there are people who are still optimistic about putting in some winter wheat this year,” Gary Stanford said on Aug. 25, following a week that brought about an inch and a half of moisture to his Magrath-area farm.
“I think we’re going to see quite a few acres go in, in the middle of September. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more in this area than there were last year.”
That was hardly a sure thing as of mid-August, when subsoil moisture levels were negligible across southern Alberta after a blistering hot and dry summer.
“We’ve had the most heat that we’ve had on my farm in my whole life, and I’ve been farming over 40 years,” said Stanford.
“From the middle of June until the middle of August, it was literally 30-above for basically two months. It’s very unusual for us to have that many days of extreme heat.”
As a result, Stanford’s last winter wheat crop didn’t perform as well as it would in a typical year.
“When that hot heat hit at the end of June, it hurt some of the yields on the winter wheat,” he said. “Usually our winter wheat outyields our spring wheat, but this year, they’re very comparable because of the way that heat blast came.”
But despite that, Stanford expects to keep winter wheat in his rotation for this year.
“We’ve stuck with our rotations even though it’s been hot and dry because we want to keep our crops healthy for the long haul,” said Stanford.
“So we are still planning on seeding some winter wheat, but we’ll have to decide how many acres.”
That’s probably the right philosophy to have at this stage of the game, said federal research scientist Rob Graf.
“I think a lot of the Prairies over the past week or so have got some very good rains,” Graf said on Aug. 26. “Had we not got those rains, things would look a lot more pessimistic, but I think with the rains we’ve received, certainly there is a lot more interest in winter wheat. That’s good.
“I think farmers are recognizing that there is enough moisture to get the crop going, and that’s exactly the attitude they should have right now.”
Until recently, growers may have considered it too dry to even seeding a winter crop, but it’s often better to seed winter wheat and bank on increased fall moisture levels to get the crop established, he added.
The secret is to make the most of what moisture you get by not seeding too deep.
“With a fall-seeded crop, planting into moisture is often impossible. But any shower that occurs is going to wet that first few centimetres of soil and get the crop going,” he said.
“If you can seed no more than a couple of centimetres deep, that’s the way to go.”
The next factor is making sure you’re fully prepared before it comes time to start seeding.
“It’s not one of those things where you can wake up one morning and say, ‘You know, I think this year I’m going to plant winter wheat,’ and expect to be going a few hours later,” said Graf.
“If you don’t have the seed in place or your seeder ready to go, it becomes a real problem to get everything organized. It’s all about that organization, so be organized and be ready to go.”
Next, you’ll want to choose the right variety for your operation.
And there’s more to choose from these days.
“Compared to 20 years ago, there are a good number of winter wheat varieties that have different combinations of disease resistance, maturity, and other traits,” he said. “Take a look at the seed guide and choose a variety that meets your needs in the best way possible.
“Don’t just look at yield — look at winter hardiness, disease resistance, maturity, and straw strength — and that will also help contribute to success with the crop.”
You’ll also want to treat the seed with a dual fungicide-insecticide seed treatment.
“Research has shown that the combination does contribute to greater stress tolerance,” said Graf. “So that seed treatment is also important.”
And finally, seed into standing stubble within the recommended window and at the recommended seeding rates as much as possible.
In northern Alberta, that typically means the last week of August, but that timing can be pushed well into September in the southern parts of the province.
“Recent research has suggested that you can actually go a bit later than that in all areas and the yield penalty is not as large as what was thought at one time,” he said.
The seeding rate is also higher than what most growers would expect.
“In the past, winter wheat growers would often seed winter wheat at relatively low seeding rates because it has this tremendous capacity to tiller, but it’s better to target 35 to 40 seeds per square metre for your seeding rate. That can also buffer a little bit against winterkill.”
But growing conditions are changing from day to day, and ultimately, it will be up to each producer to decide if winter wheat has a fit on their farms this year.
At this point, though, some growers will find it worth the risk.
“I think farmers are eternal optimists,” said Graf. “Being in a profession that is so tied to the environment and weather conditions, you’re always taking a gamble.
“I don’t think we can predict what next spring is going to be like — and we can’t any year — so if conditions are right to get the crop established, you just have to go for it.”
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