Planting winter wheat

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

The prospect of a new wheat season brings with it a sense of optimism. It is fueled by stronger market prices and the anticipation of timely planting. As planting time nears, it may be helpful to review some recommendations and suggestions.

Planting preparations

Achieving top yields requires a uniform stand of healthy seedlings. This is dependent on seeds being dropped as evenly as possible and at a uniform depth. Good seed placement, in turn, requires that fields are appropriately prepped, and drills receive disciplined inspection, necessary adjustments and deliberate calibrations.

Furthermore, because wheat planting usually coincides with row crop harvest, farmers should develop a plan that helps insure that enough attention, time and focus is placed on the planting operation. Several bushels of yield can easily be made or lost depending on the level of care taken at planting.

Planting date

Highest yields are most likely to be attained when planting approximately 10 days following the Hessian fly-free-date (ffd). Of course, the reality is that planting on anyone’s preselected “best” date depends on weather conditions and when the preceding crop can reasonably be harvested. Nevertheless, it is important to be as timely as possible to insure that seedlings have sufficient time and warm weather to develop a strong root system and multiple tillers. Once 10 days have passed beyond the Hessian fly-free-date, yield potential tends to decline at least one bushel for each additional day of delay.

While the Hessian fly no longer poses a significant threat to wheat in Michigan, the Hessian fly-free-date is still a useful reference relative to wheat and disease development. Growers may do well to plant a fraction of their acreage within a few days of the Hessian fly-free-date. However, planting wheat prior to the Hessian fly-free-date is generally not encouraged as the crop may be at greater risk from viral and fungal diseases of the roots or foliage. (Suggestion: reduce fertilizer nitrogen rates to 10 lbs. /acre or less when planting at or before the Hessian fly-free-date).

Seed source

The best seed is certified and professionally treated. Where growers elect to plant their own seed, however, steps need to be taken to increase the odds of success: 1) reject grain from fields having any sign of a disease that can infect kernels internally (e.g. loose smut) or weeds whose seed tends to carry with the grain (e.g. cheat); 2) thoroughly clean the grain to remove small and light weight kernels; 3) submit the seed to a quality testing laboratory and 4) have the seed professionally treated with a fungicide (the exception here is that seed to be applied by airplane over soybeans should not be treated). Reminder: it is illegal to provide bin-run or uncertified seeds to others.

Inferior grain can sometime make acceptable seed. Examples include grain that has relatively high levels of DON or vomitoxin (assuming the seed is professionally cleaned and treated), and grain having a low level of sprouts or low falling number. In the latter case, it is important that the wheat be given a warm germination test and a stress test (Tetrazolium or Accelerated Aging), and that it is not held for the following year. Seed testing can be performed by the Michigan Crop Improvement Association. (517-332-3546).

Planting rate

It is generally recommended that growers plant 1.5 to 2.2 million seeds per acre. Seeding rates on the lower end of the range should be reserved for fields being planted early (within a couple days of the Hessian fly-free-date). As the planting season goes on, the seeding rates should become progressively higher. If planting continues into the second half of October, the seed rate should be increased to at least 2.0 million per acre. The seeding rates should also be adjusted upward when seed is known to be compromised by disease, sprout damage or condition.

Table 1 identifies the pounds of seed that a grower would need based on the seed count per pound and his target seeding rate. For example, if the seed bags specify that there are 14,000 seeds per pound and the target seeding rate is 1.8 million seeds per acre, 129 pounds of seed would be needed per acre. (click to view pdf)

Table 2 is useful when assessing the number of seeds being dropped by each 7.5 inch-spaced row unit. It is also helpful in observing the seedling population throughout the field (assumes a 90 percent emergence rate). (click to view pdf)

Seeding depth

Appropriate seeding depths usually range from 0.75 to 1.5 inches. The goal here is to achieve early and even emergence of the seedlings. Usually, a planting depth of approximately 1 inch will be deep enough to reach adequate soil moisture, provide for well anchored plants, and offer some protection against winter injury. A reasonable exception here is a grower who is working light or droughty soils and elects to plant at least 1.5 inches in order to reach soil moisture, particularly when it’s relatively early in the planting season.

Tillage systems

Wheat establishment can be successful under conventional, minimum tillage and no-till systems. Generally speaking, no-till has won favor in recent years. It tends to result in more unevenness in the stand, but it can often provide improved moisture retention and less susceptibility to cold temperature damage. Tillage, even at a minimal level, can be helpful in distributing and incorporating residue, fertilizer and lime; and create a more uniform seedbed. Tillage can also be useful when attempting to reduce disease inoculum borne in crop residue (e.g. corn stubble or stalks infected with Fusarium).

Crop insurance reminders

Crop insurance continues to be an important risk management and marketing tool. Growers will likely be able to sign contracts for either the Yield (multi-peril) policy or the Revenue (CRC) policy in early September, but the formula market price under the Revenue policy will not be known until September 15. The sign-up deadline is September 30. To receive full coverage, wheat needs to be planted on or before October 25.

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