Cultivating winter wheat
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2009’s winter wheat production was expected to yield 43.9 bushels per acre translating into a total crop of around 1.52 billion bushels. Soft red winter wheat is grown in the U.S eastern Corn Belt, along the Atlantic coast, and in the northern Mississippi Delta; winter wheat in total accounted for just over 68 per cent of U.S. wheat production for 2009. Soft red winter wheat is planted from mid August to the end of October and is generally harvested from mid May to the end of June and accounts for, on average, 19 per cent of the annual U.S. wheat crop.
Why winter wheat?
Winter wheat can be more profitable as it requires fewer inputs than spring wheat and it has a higher yield potential; the winter wheat harvest for 2009 for South Carolina averaged 55 bushels per acre, a reduction of just over eight per cent from 2008. Other advantages of winter wheat include:
- Labor and machinery efficiencies as the crop can be planted and harvested at low peak agricultural months
- Winter wheat establishes a ground cover and thus suppresses weeds, provides cover for wildlife, and reduces erosion from wind and water
- The crop is well suited for no-till cropping systems and may qualify for incentive payments from programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for direct seeding or providing a winter cover crop
You should be aiming for a soil Ph range of 5.4 to 5.8. Regular testing will indicate whether you need to bring the Ph up or down; talk to your seed professional as to which varieties are best suited to your farm. Winter wheat generally grows in plant hardiness zone three through to zone eight. Planting for plant hardiness zones three to seven inclusive should be from late summer to early fall and in plant hardiness zone eight you can wait until late fall to early winter to plant your crop. You should be aiming to achieve 22 to 25 vigorous seedlings per square foot, which means planting at a density of 30 to 35 seeds per square foot. The seed rows can be set to four, six, seven, or eight inches apart and from one to one a half inches deep; check your seed manufacturer's guide for the recommended seeded rate for differently spaced rows. Finally, timely planting is important too and delays may cost you more for seed as seeding rates for planting two weeks and one month later than optimum can mean sowing up to 10 per cent and up to 20 per cent more seed respectively.
Soil sampling will reveal the nutrients of your soil and whether supplements are needed. For winter wheat it is most likely to be nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that will be required. Test your soil and talk to your local professionals for advice on a solution that suits your fields and crop.
Weeds, pests, and disease
Winter wheat can provide good competition against weeds. However, you may need to choose to take a helping hand through the use of insecticide and fungicide treatments. In terms of insects, aphids and Hessian flies are a particular problem for winter wheat. Diseases to be prepared for include:
- Fusarium, a widely distributed fungus
- Leaf rust, also known as brown rust that is especially damaging to wheat
- Powdery mildew, a common fungal disease
- Pythium, also known as cottony blight or grease spot, is a fungal disease affecting the roots of the plant
- Septoria, a fungal leaf spot disease
- Stripe rust, a fungal leaf disease
In essence, better preparation usually equals a better yield from your winter wheat. Pay attention to your combining equipment, a little money spent on repairs and fine tuning may save a lot of money when it come to harvesting. Winter wheat can be either straight cut (direct combined), or, if your variety is a taller one, which does not lend itself well to straight cutting, it may be more suitable cut and swath. Winter wheat grain at a moisture content of 12 percent to 13 percent will generally keep in storage for up to 12 months if the grain's temperature is kept below 55 degrees F with the aid of aeration; having a grain moisture tester is often a valuable extra tool to ensure your wheat is at its optimum moisture. Before harvesting, it is also a good idea to thoroughly clean both your equipment and all of your grain bins; treat the floors and walls of your grain bins with insecticide up to the point of runoff after cleaning, as insect larvae may have been present in any of the old grain left over from the last harvest.