Wheat gets a jump-start this year

Wheat received an early wake-up call this year from unseasonably warm temperatures. This has prompted a lot of speculation about what lies ahead for the crop.

Michigan’s wheat is getting an early jump on the season based on its current level of green-up. But even more telling and significant is the fact that new root initiation and growth could be seen already in mid-March. This stage of development is often not seen until April. The early development could bode well for the crop, particularly because the soil has not been excessively wet for an extended length of time. Warm, dry soil conditions tend to translate into roots being less hampered by soil- borne diseases, and less stressed by repeated freezing and thawing. Plant nutrients are also more readily available under this environment.

This is not to say that there isn’t some risk. At this point, Michigan wheat growers may well see some freeze damage to leaves in the weeks to come. However, this is unlikely to reduce potential yields. If crop development continues to outpace the change of seasons, the greatest risk occurs when the growing point (also known as the first node or joint) rises above the protection of the soil surface. This stage may occur as early as mid-April this year. The growing point is at risk when temperatures dip near 20 degrees. The risk increases as the plants continue to develop. (This was also addressed in an earlier article, “Winter wheat’s winter survival.” Also see Jeff Andresen’s article, “Record-breaking warm weather advances beginning of growing season.”)

As for managing this crop, few if any adjustments are necessary. There is no hurry to apply fertilizer nitrogen (N), though a partial dose at this time may be useful where stands are thin. If a split application is planned, the first application might go on within the next two weeks with the second and final application around the time of first joint.

Some speculate that we will see early development of foliar diseases. While it’s true that powdery mildew is being found, yields are largely unaffected this early-on. However, if the variety is particularly susceptible and the disease continues to develop, a fungicide application might be considered for use around the time of first joint. The idea that this season will bring more wheat diseases is largely unfounded. As always, it’s best to wait to see how the crop and the diseases develop before committing to making multiple fungicide applications.

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