Intensively managing wheat can improve yield potential for Oklahoma farmers and limit the production variability caused by weather.

“Changing to intensively managed wheat requires changes in production, but, more importantly, changes in the minds of the producers,” says Jeff Edwards, Oklahoma State University Extension wheat specialist.

Edwards, speaking at the recent No-Till Oklahoma Conference in Norman, said intensive wheat management is “a system of management that meets the crop’s needs and increases the reliability and consistency of wheat yields.”

He got interested in the system working in Kentucky, where growers had bought into the process. Edwards said wheat was treated as a second class crop in Kentucky for years until an ag representative went to Europe and saw how they managed wheat and brought that knowledge back to Kentucky.

Edwards said Kentucky’s yield levels had tracked the general U.S. trend for years, “until 1990, when yields started to take off.”

He said farmers had assumed that wheat would not respond to management and that yield was more a result of good or bad weather than anything the producer could do. “But Kentucky growers changed and saw that wheat would respond to management. Yields began to increase and the University of Kentucky began to add the (management system) to their recommendations.”

Attitude adjustment

Edwards said the key is producers’ willingness to adapt. “Footsteps in the field is a crucial factor,” he said. “That’s the most important change. Growers need to be in the field every week; they have to get out of the truck and if they don’t have time, they should hire someone.”

He said a consultant probably costs about $10 an acre. “That’s about one to two bushels of wheat. A good consultant will increase yield more than that.”

He said producers must base decisions on the crop needs and pay attention to details. “And they have to adopt a willingness to experiment,” he said. “Most no-till farmers have already done that.”

Edwards said producers deal with two distinct divisions in growing a wheat crop—yield building factors and yield protecting factors. Switching to an intensively managed system puts the focus on yield building. Those factors include variety selection, nutrition, rotation, precision and timing.

Yield protection includes weed, insect, disease and grazing control and harvest management.

“Rotation is a key to building yield potential,” Edwards said. “Rotation reduces pest severity and builds management skills in rotation crops that carry over to wheat.”

He said wheat yields typically yield 10 percent (a conservative estimate) the year following canola. “And canola is harder to grow than wheat and it takes more time.” Some of that new management expertise should translate into better management in wheat.

Edwards said selecting a high-yielding, well-adapted variety also builds yield potential. “Look at variety trials and see what varieties are best for specific locations. Get an idea of three to five varieties that might work on a particular farm and then experiment with those.”

He said seed treatments are a good investment. “In the worst-case scenario, they break even.”

Precision and timeliness are critical for yield stability and is “the most important aspect of intensive wheat management,” Edwards said. “It’s also one of the largest limiting factors for Oklahoma wheat farmers. The difference between success and failure is about one week.”

He said planting with precision is the first step. “Calibrate the drill and change every time the variety or conditions change. Timely planting assures adequate tillering.”

He said consistent and accurate planting depth will increase potential for a uniform stand.

Precision spray applications are also important to assure proper coverage with nutrients and crop protection chemicals. “Tramlines are an ‘old school’ way to improve precision,” Edwards said. “GPS technology is better and will limit compaction over years.

Timely applications

“Also, make applications when the crop needs them, not when it’s convenient.”

Edwards said plant nutrition is a “field-by-field” process. “Apply the bulk of the crop’s nitrogen needs as a topdress. Soil test and lime as needed.”

He said a spinner fertilizer truck may result in streaking and he prefers an air truck.

“Yield potential for a wheat crop is locked in with all the building factors,” Edwards said. After topdressing, yield potential is set and growers turn to protecting yield.

Weed control is a key factor in preserving yield potential. “Identify weed species; identify and monitor problem weed locations and spray weeds when they are small,” Edwards recommended. “Also, rotate crops and chemistry.”

He said checking for insects requires a grower or consultant to get into the crop. “You can’t do it standing up,” he said. “I support integrated pest management but I would err on the side of caution. Also, move quickly when insect pests reach threshold. Seed treatments provide a benefit.”

Rotation is a crucial factor in disease management, he said. “Also, plant disease-free seed and plant during the optimal planting window. Use a fungicide when justified by yield potential.”

Edwards said managing straw at harvest is the first step in protecting the next crop. “Spread straw uniformly,” he recommended.

He said wheat producers should “experiment, evaluate and adjust,” production practices to develop an intensive management system.

“And the key to the system is footstep in the field.”