The Texas wheat crop holds more promise now than it did this time last year, but making a good yield may be “nip and tuck,” as farmers continue to hope for adequate rainfall through spring to finish out the crop.

That’s especially true of the High Plains, says Travis Miller, associate department head, Soil and Crop Sciences, Texas A&M University. Miller told participants in a Blackland Income Growth Conference grain seminar that much of Texas “has had a little rain.

“The Blacklands and East Texas received several inches from January through early February. “But the High Plains has had very little,” he said in a presentation during the 50thAnnual B.I.G. conference in Waco recently.

“And the High Plains is where about half of the state’s wheat is grown.”

Miller, who also serves as the Texas AgriLife drought monitor, said nine or 10 counties are “now drought free.” Recent rains may have pushed another county or two into that category as well.

“But a significant part of the state remains in drought,” he said. “In fact, the drought risk is worse now than it was this time last year.”

Miller showed side-by-side drought monitor maps that detailed drought conditions from January 2011 and January 2012. A considerably larger part of the state is in at least severe drought now than was the case a year ago.

“We’re not out of the drought yet,” he said. The La Nina event “dipped way below neutral but may not be as severe now as it was this time last year. But it is not back to neutral.”

Recent projections indicate conditions could start to improve as early as May or as late as late summer.

Miller said wheat farmers have options to manage production during a drought. Fallow is one possibility but producers would have to take land out of production for an extended period.

Reduced tillage might be a less drastic option. “Reducing tillage can save 1 to 1.5 inches of moisture,” he said.

He recommends soil testing and possibly identifying residual nutrients from last year’s failed crops. Altering planting dates may help conserve moisture. Delayed planting could save as much as 5 inches of water, he said.

Managing irrigation, based on field moisture levels, improves water use efficiency.

Miller said early-maturing varieties also “can make a big difference. A 10-day difference in maturity can be significant,” he said.

 

Variety selection is key

Variety selection is always a crucial factor in planting wheat or any other crop, Miller said. “But under drought conditions, choosing the right variety is even more important. He recommends growers look at Texas AgriLife variety trials. The Texas A&M website http://varietytesting.tamu.edu/wheat/, provides information on many varieties and over several years and diverse locations.

“Stability over time is important,” Miller said. “Look at variety trials from multiple locations. We have 30 or 35 trials across the state every year.”

He said the variety trial website shows top performers.

Fertility, Miler said, is important even during drought conditions. “During a drought, don’t starve the crop,” he said. “Soil sample,” to make certain wheat has adequate nutrition.

He said timing is also important. “Nitrogen uptake is highest at jointing. The plant uses little nitrogen in early growth stages. If the plant has poor nutrition at seed set/spike,” yield will suffer.

Weed management plays a key role in wheat production in either drought or more normal seasons. “Watch herbicide labels to identify proper timing and potential crop injury.” He says paying attention to the growth stage of the crop and the target weed improves control and reduces potential for crop loss. “Don’t let weeds get too big,” he said.

 Miller said wheat farmers should check fields for resistant ryegrass and develop rotation or other control strategies to combat the problem if identified.

Prevention is a key, he said. “Weed-free wheat seed” is a good first step. Clean equipment, rotation and using the proper herbicide rates are also important tools in managing resistant weeds. “Don’t cut herbicide rates,” he said.

Fungicide applications will pay on varieties that are susceptible to specific diseases. He said a variety such as TAM 112, which is susceptible to several wheat diseases, may experience “a huge yield advantage with a split or late fungicide application.” A variety such as TAM 304, which has disease resistance, “gets less advantage from fungicide applications.”

Miller said Texas wheat acreage, including wheat for grain, wheat for grazing and dual-use wheat, stabilized at about 6 million acres.

Production has been variable for the past few years because of drought.