Michigan’s 2016 wheat harvest has begun

Some reminders for wheat growers as they look forward to harvest.

Selected grassy weeds in wheat, from left to right: windgrass, cheat and bluegrass. Photo: Martin Nagelkirk, MSU Extension.

Selected grassy weeds in wheat, from left to right: windgrass, cheat and bluegrass. Photo: Martin Nagelkirk, MSU Extension.

The harvest of Michigan’s 570,000 acres of wheat is underway. Wheat growers were expecting yields to top last year’s record average yield of 81 bushels per acre, but the excessively dry conditions during June will likely reduce expectations.

With the exceptionally dry weather, current grain quality should be very good as dry conditions tend to limit diseases that can adversely affect the quality of developing grain. Most notably, Fusarium head scab levels are very low in the major wheat growing areas of the state. At this point, it is preferable, at least for the wheat crop, that the dry weather continue through harvest to ensure grain has high test weights, good baking quality and minimal market discounts. Unfortunately, the rain that is predicted in the long range forecast may lead to a risk of sprout damage.

As growers harvest the 2016 crop, the following are some considerations:

  • Minimize the risk of pre-harvest sprouting. Once grain reaches maturity (35 to 40 percent moisture), exposing it to moisture via rain, fog or mist can lead to the kernel behaving as a seed instead of a grain, resulting in the initiation of the sprouting process. Sprouting is more likely under repeated wetting. To minimize the chance of sprouting (measured as falling number), harvest and dry grain as soon as possible (see “Understanding Pre-harvest Sprouting of Wheat” by Virginia Cooperative Extension).
  • Combine settings. Harvest conditions may warrant combine adjustments. For example, once it is determined scab and associated DON levels are low, a grower might try running the combine’s fan speed below its maximum setting to see how it effects grain cleaning and the loss of small kernels. Harvesting high moisture grain and tough straw will require further adjustments.
  • Straw harvest. Harvesting and selling wheat straw can be a reasonable and profitable option for some growers. However, it is also important to recognize that straw has value when left in the field as it contains nutrients (at least 11 pounds of nitrogen, 3 pounds phosphate and 20 pounds of potash per ton), and it serves as a source of organic matter. Where straw is removed, growers would do well to use a cover crop to benefit soil quality and compensate for straw removal.
  • Use a cover crop. If red clover was not under-seeded this past spring, Michigan State University Extension recommends establishing a cover crop following harvest. There are several summer annual and winter annual cover crops from which to choose (see “Cover crop choices following winter wheat” by MSU Extension).
  • Manage weeds. Growers should note troublesome weeds within the wheat field. Of greatest concern is windgrass. This weed has spread from the Thumb region into the Saginaw Valley and central Michigan. Its tiny seed tends to be carried in the combine and dribbles out onto subsequently harvested fields. Chess or cheat is also quite evident this year. This seed is difficult to separate from the wheat grain and, consequently, tends to be reseeded along with any bin-run wheat seed.
  • Avoid contamination. There is zero tolerance for grain that has any evidence of seed treatment. Any equipment, like wagons, augers, etc., that came into contact with treated seed should not be used for grain handling or, at least, thoroughly cleaned. There is also zero tolerance of fecal material. This might originate with birds that inhabit equipment storage structures, or where deer or raccoons frequent lodged grain.
  • Harvest safety. All farmers should take steps to insure equipment is in good repair and working order. This should include everything from equipment steps to running lights. Also, everyone assisting in harvest should be made aware of all potential hazards associated with the harvest, hauling and storage of grain. 

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