As Eric Williams waded into a chest-high stand of wheat on a sunny, late-April day, the full heads were just taking on the first hint of an amber hue and stirred by a gentle breeze they performed a whispery rustle sound that promises—maybe just hints at—an abundant harvest.
Williams suggested the field might average better than 40 bushels per acre.
He expects more, however. “I think wheat yields this year will please everyone,” he said. “Wheat looks pretty good.” He won’t predict how good he thinks the crop will be, displaying an almost universal farmer superstition of counting eggs too quickly and cognizant of the possibility of weather disasters that can wipe out even the best potential in a matter of minutes.
Williams, who farms near Aberfoyle,Texas, says growing conditions for most of the Northeast corner of the state “have been ideal from the time we planted. It grew off well and broke dormancy early.” He figures he was three to four weeks from harvest in late-April.
Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist Jim Swart, who works out of Commerce, says this crop has more potential than any wheat crop he’s seen in almost 30 years serving this area.
Ample fall and winter rain, in addition to a mild winter and farmers who manage for high yields, add to the optimism, Swart says.
But this growing season has not been without challenges. “Ideal growing conditions for wheat also mean an ideal climate for challenges,” Williams says. “Warm, moist weather increases the potential for disease pressure.”
Swart says he’s seen more glume blotch this year than usual. “But a higher incidence of glume blotch indicates a good growing environment.”
Williams got by, however, without applying fungicide. “I planted two resistant varieties, Syngenta Coker 9553 and USG 3555.” Both of those have resistance to stripe and leaf rust.
Williams scouted for disease and insect pressure to make certain. “I would have made dual applications if I had found damaging infestations,” he says. He saw some armyworms and “some flag leaf damage, but less than 1 percent. I held off spraying. I had applied Axial XL herbicide so we already had tracks in the field. Another trip would not have hurt yield potential (from damaged stalks). We just didn’t need it.”
He’s more concerned about ryegrass, especially herbicide resistant types. “If there were a way to eradicate ryegrass, I would support it,” he says.
“Next year I’ll treat every acre with Axiom herbicide right after the wheat comes up, and follow it with Axial XL later. It’s hard to predict which fields will be infected with ryegrass.”
Typically, he has little ryegrass infestations in fields planted behind corn, but he saw some this year.
Swart says growers need to be alert for resistant strains of ryegrass. “When they harvest their wheat, they should look for escaped ryegrass and take action.” He says Axiom offers both burndown and pre-emerge activity.
Williams says he likes to “dribble on fertilizer. If I do that, I can’t mix Ally with the fertilizer to control broadleaf weeds, and I don’t want to make two trips. If I can come in with Axiom early, I will get ryegrass and broadleaf weeds then, and that might be a good option.”
“We also need a rotation crop,” Swart adds, “in fields where ryegrass is a problem in wheat.”
“I don’t think I’ll plant wheat behind wheat again,” Williams says. “A wheat and soybean rotation has worked well. We have a five-year history of 15 bushels of soybeans per acre.”
He plants a group 3.9 variety as early as he can get it in, usually around March 15. “If we catch a rain in June, we can do well.”
He says the early start allows him to outrun heat and drought stress.
“I can make a little money with 15-bushel soybeans,” he says. “And I don’t see ryegrass after soybeans. With either corn or soybeans, I plant Roundup Ready varieties and apply glyphosate to control weeds.”
Swart says another option for ryegrass control is to get wheat ground in good shape in the fall and then delay planting. “Wait until the ryegrass comes up and kill it with glyphosate. Then plant into a stale seedbed.”
“This year, I planted wheat behind wheat too soon,” Williams says. “I got impatient.”
Swart says fast-growing wheat varieties also might provide an advantage by out-competing the ryegrass. He also recommends planting several varieties to spread risk of freeze damage. “Plant early varieties late and full-season varieties early,” he says.
Williams says resistant ryegrass represents another change that farmers have to be flexible enough to handle. “About every three or four years we have to adapt our farming practices to adjust to a new problem,” he says.
He’s also thinking about what to do with his corn crop. “I need to decide soon whether to apply AflaGuard (an atoxigenic aspergillus product that out competes aflatoxin),” he says. The product is widely used in the area to reduce aflatoxin levels on corn, but Williams will not grow all his corn for grain.
“We usually take it to grain. We have an elevator so we want the volume. But we’ve been offered a good contract for corn silage. We need 88 bushels of grain per acre to equal 10 tons of silage at $45 per ton, which is what we can get for it in the field. So we will sell part of the crop for silage.”
He planted a good silage hybrid and is in a convenient location to deliver silage.
“We still plan to take 65 percent of the corn crop to grain,” he says.
Production costs have been a challenge for the corn and wheat crops, especially with fertilizer prices. “But we haven’t made any changes in our nutrition program,” Williams says. “We stayed with what works—450 pounds per acre for corn and about 300 pounds of nitrogen topdressed on wheat.”
He used to apply all the 32-0-0 on corn in one application. “We’ve spread it out to two applications with good results, although I don’t like running over the ground.”
Jeremy Gardner, who works for Williams, says planting corn was a bit difficult this spring. “It was wet. We could have three or four good days in a row and then rain would delay us for five or six days.”
Spring crops look good
He says by late April the corn, wheat and soybeans all looked good.
Williams says they are trying reduced tillage systems. “Success has a lot to do with the year,” he says. “But it can be hard to no-till in Northeast Texas. If we get it right in the fall, it works well. Timing with glyphosate application is the key. If we put it out when the soil is dry, we have minimal compaction. If we apply it when it’s wet, we have compaction all year.”
They say global positioning system technology is improving efficiency. “We got an auto-steer unit this year,” Williams says.
“The initial cost hurts,” Gardner adds, “but we can spray a lot more in a day.”
“We’ve used mapping instead of foam markers for several years,” Williams says. Auto-steer is a step up.
“I don’t know if we run faster because of the GPS or because we have a longer boom, but we’re doing more in a day,” Gardner says. “And we have reduced overlap significantly. It pretty much pays for itself.”
“With the Outback auto-steer, compared to the overlap we got with mapping or foam markers, we’re saving fertilizer,” Williams adds. “With the high cost of fertilizer, that adds up.”
He says if he has a good year, he may consider adding auto-steer to the planter.
Meanwhile, he’s watching his wheat crop finish up and preparing for what he hopes to be a bountiful harvest within the next month. But he’s not making any predictions.