A cold, blustery mid-January day seemed an ideal time to prowl around Northeast Texas wheat country, inspecting crop progress and catching up with a few folks at a truck stop just off a semi-busy highway and then catching lunch at a favorite Tex-Mex café in the small farming community of Leonard.

The wheat looks okay, a bit short and growing slowly, stymied a bit by cold weather.

And a stark difference shows between wheat planted in late October and fields planted in mid-November. The earlier-planted wheat is about twice as big, tillering well and showing a more intense green color.

The difference likely will mean little, if anything, by harvest-time, says Jim Swart, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist out of Commerce.

Farmers agree.

“It’s been cold,” says Collin County wheat and corn farmer Butch Aycock. “Growth is slow but it just needs to tiller now and it’s doing that. Most of the crop looks good; we’ve seen no disease so far.”
Aycock says only about 200 of the 3,000 acres of wheat he’s planted looks bad. “Moisture is okay. In fact, we probably need a little dry stretch on our wetter soils.”

Fall rain slowed him down a little and prevented him from planting all the wheat he wanted. “We had a few wet spells at planting time. I wanted to plant a little more but I don’t like to ‘mud in’ wheat. We can get into all kinds of disease problems.”

Jay Norman, a Fannin County corn and wheat farmer, says his wheat crop also looks good and is tillering well. He is a bit concerned that consistent drought conditions over the last few years forced him and other farmers out of an ideal corn-wheat rotation. “I’m a bit concerned with some of my wheat-behind-wheat,” Norman says.

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He and Aycock have concentrated corn on their better ground the last few years, leaving thinner soils for wheat. “I’ve planted wheat on wheat on the marginal corn land,” Norman says. With the series of dry summers, he had low expectations for corn making on the more rocky soils.

Aycock agrees. “I have about one-third of my wheat acreage following wheat. Some issues with aflatoxin in corn make wheat a better choice in some fields.” He says acreage close to town, where flying on Aflaguard (an atoxigenic form of the fungus responsible for aflatoxin contamination) is not feasible, may be better suited to wheat. “I stay with wheat instead of corn on those fields,” he says. “Also, with the drought as bad as it has been for the past few years, I haven’t rotated as I should have. On those thin soils, wheat is a better choice than corn. For the long-term, that’s not a good option, though. I’ve had corn on corn for several years, too. I hope to get back to a better rotation, but I can’t plant corn on rocky ground.”

Rotation options are limited. “We don’t have many choices for these soils,” Aycock says. Folks have tried several alternatives, including sunflower. A growing number are turning to grain sorghum. But a wheat-corn combination remains a viable option, in large part because of increased yield potential with wheat. Farmers in this corner of Texas have made good crops the past two years, despite drought conditions that plagued most of the state. Some timely rains helped the last two crops do well with yields pushing above 80 bushels per acre for many growers.

Two good years

“We had two good years,” Norman says. “It will be hard to duplicate last year.”

Better varieties are one reason, Aycock believes. Farmers in the area plant almost all soft red winter wheat varieties, capitalizing on higher yield potential than they could get from hard red winter choices. He and Swart cite Terral 8861 and Pioneer 25R30 and 25R40 as three of the best. “The 2540 is the prettiest wheat there is,” Aycock says.

Those varieties have meshed well with recommended planting dates, too. Several Hessian fly infestations have encouraged farmers to delay planting until after the flies are no longer viable in the fall. If they emerge with no wheat host available they perish.  Consequently, farmers have been opting for a late October planting window to avoid Hessian fly damage.

“Planting late is also an advantage because of less potential for freeze damage,” Swart says.

Aycock and Norman are making plans for topdressing wheat and agree that it’s a bit of a balancing act to apply nitrogen at the right time—waiting as long as possible to get the most benefit but not waiting too long and risk losing yield.

“I’m looking at soil tests,” Aycock says. “I band phosphate and zinc and add potassium and other nutrients. I’m about a month away from topdressing.”

Norman uses a split application to make certain wheat has adequate nutrients in season.

“I don’t want to run out of nitrogen,” Aycock says. “I like to wait as long as I can, but if I wait too late I lose some yield. I think it’s true for any crop; when you see nitrogen getting low, you’ve already lost yield.”

He’s also using a nitrogen stabilizer.

He says wheat may actually need a little more nitrogen than corn. “With corn, we can apply 130 units of nitrogen and get 100 bushels of corn and still have some nitrogen left. With wheat, we probably need to add some more.”

Aycock and other Northeast Texas wheat farmers have been battling ryegrass for several years, some of it herbicide resistant.

Swart says if farmers work the soil early, let ryegrass emerge and then clean it up and plant, they may avoid bad infestations. Aycock says cleaning up emerging ryegrass with Roundup gives the wheat an opportunity to germinate and grow and then shade out the ryegrass. He’s also using Axial herbicide to provide longer control.

Swart says a combination of Axiom early and Axial later is the best option currently available for resistant ryegrass.

Fungicide use has become a routine cost of production, too, Swart says. “I’ll use it,” Aycock says. “With the cost as low as it is, it just makes sense.”

Swart says tebuconazole has been a good investment for the past few years. “We’ve seen a good bump in yields, even with disease resistant varieties.”

“It pays several times over,” Aycock adds.

Norman and Aycock are also looking ahead to corn planting. Norman may start as soon as the last few days of February, but March 1 is the typical target date. They prefer risking a little cold damage early than planting late. Spring rains the last two years interrupted planting.

“It seems like we would plant for three or four days, stay out for ten days and start back again,” Norman says. “It takes time for these soils to dry out after a rainfall.”

“At planting time, it gets late in a hurry,” Aycock says. “Planting corn in mid-April is almost never good.”

“I’d rather plant early and suffer some cold damage than plant late,” Norman says.

Both will have a bit less corn than usual. Corn yields have been a bit off the last two years, limited by drought, but production losses in this area were not as bad as in other parts of the Southwest.

Dry years

“We had several dry years, but we also caught some rain and made some pretty good corn,” Norman says. He notes that 2005 and 2006 were dry. “But 2007 was a good year, and it looked like an irrigated crop.”

The area, once burdened with a reputation for producing corn with high aflatoxin levels, has improved quality significantly over the past few years to the point where some  brokers are buying corn here to make up for high aflatoxin levels in other areas. The difference, growers say, is Aflaguard.

“I only had two loads last year that measured more than 20 parts per billion,” Norman says. “Aflaguard made the difference. We apply it every year and are getting an 85 percent to 90 percent reduction in aflatoxin.”

Cost is $20 per acre. “It’s just another cost of production,” Norman says. Depending on the price of corn, it takes from two-and-a-half to five bushels per acre to cover the expense, Aycock adds.

He says some crops are more forgiving than others and corn is one that will punish you for making a mistake. He says the crop needs water at a certain time, adequate nutrients on time and protection from pests.

“If you make a mistake, you have to be almost perfect for the rest of the season to make up for it,” Norman adds.

He likes to have some nitrogen available early to get the crop started. He’s been injecting fertilizer 4 inches off the row right after planting for the last two years. “I think that will be an advantage.”

Aycock was applying pre-plant fertilizer in late January.

The last item on the unofficial agenda was feral hog control, another management expense that has become “one more cost of production,” Norman says. “I have a full-time hunter because hogs are hitting me just about everywhere.”

That hunter, who Norman describes as a “deadly shooter,” took 600 hogs out of Norman’s fields over the past 18 months. “He got some of those from a helicopter but shot most from the ground. It’s made a difference.”

But hogs are still taking a toll in corn fields. “They’re hitting us at harvest now,” Norman says. “They come in and knock the stalks down.”

Control measures are more difficult with a mature crop. Hunters on the ground can’t see hogs to shoot and hunters in helicopters can’t pick them out from the vegetation. They say helicopters, when vegetation is thin, can be effective in reducing hog numbers.

Trapping in the area has not been as successful. “It just hasn’t worked well for us,” Norman says. “A few farmers are using traps successfully.”

They would like to see some form of toxin or product that would render the animals sterile made available to reduce hog numbers and the damage and control costs farmers endure every year.

Before taking leave, Aycock and Norman quickly contemplated grain prices. They are not optimistic for any upward movement.

“A lot of factors come into play,” Norman says. He cites low cattle numbers, ethanol ups and downs, and competition from other countries as overriding concerns.

“We see a lot of uncertainty,” he adds.

“And we have to look at interest rates,” Aycock says. “How long can it stay this low?”

Having other things to do, the participants then went their separate ways.

 

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