Making the Most of Your 2023 Winter Wheat Crop

Strategizing to manage yields to their fullest potential.

By Emily Croft

After a long and warm fall, OMAFRA predicts that there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of winter wheat acres planted in Ontario in the fall of 2022, compared to the previous fall. With both wheat and input prices high, what can you do this spring to get the most out of your 2023 winter wheat crop at harvest?

“Each year presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. Weather, insects, disease, and weed pressure are all factors that can impact a crop’s performance,” says Christa Roettele, spokesperson for OMAFRA.

Based on OMAFRA statistical data, it is estimated that there were 1.34 million acres of winter wheat planted in fall 2022. This would be the highest number of acres seeded to winter wheat over the past five years, according to Roettele.

Carrie Davenport, owner of Georgian View Ag Services, shared that the wheat crop was in good shape during the fall.

“We have healthy crops after this fall. We had an excellent, warm, dry fall for plants to establish two to three tillers and develop strong crowns heading into winter,” says Davenport.

Once the snow has melted in the spring, the first step in determining a plan of action in wheat management is assessing the stand of wheat that has remained.

“This year’s wheat crop went in the ground in good time. It was planted early and there’s a strong stand. When assessing the crop in the spring, the wheat may be more advanced than other years,” explains Bob Thirlwall, market development agronomist with Bayer Crop Science.

Bayer Corp Science Employees at Outdoor Farm Show
    Bob Thirlwall, Bayer Crop Science (left), with producers and industry execs Greg and Peter Hannam at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last September. -Paul Nolan photo

Thirlwall suggests evaluating heads of wheat per square foot to determine crop viability in the spring.

“Typically, the best yields are from fields that have between 40 and 60 heads of wheat per square foot. The cut-off of 20 heads per square foot would likely mean termination of the crop and replanting the field in corn or soybeans,” says Thirlwall.

It is recommended by OMAFRA that the wheat stand should be maintained if less than 10 per cent of the field is killed over winter.

Once it is determined if the crop is viable, producers should create a management plan to minimize disease and weed pressure and maximize their yields.

Protect your crop

When planning to protect yields in winter wheat it is important to manage weed and insect pressure, while safeguarding the flag leaf to maximize its potential for photosynthesis. If the pressure of these challenges is sufficient, it may be necessary to apply herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides.

“As the flag leaf emerges, it is important to protect it from disease and insects as it accounts for approximately 50 per cent of the photosynthates used for grain development,” says OMAFRA’s Roettele.

Thirlwall explains that when producers are considering how to put together their herbicide program it is important to assess the weed population, including the type and prevalence of the weeds present.

“If you have weeds like Canada fleabane and chickweed, these biennial plants will start to grow as soon as temperatures are above 0 C. They provide early-season competition for the winter wheat crop,” says Thirlwall.

“You should assess competition to make sure these weeds don’t outpace the wheat crop.”

Fungicide application should also be considered to protect yields. Thirlwall shares that a fungicide could be applied in the T1 Stage as a tank mix with herbicides.

“If tank mixing fungicides with herbicides it is important to use lots of water and wait 24 hours after an overnight temperature of below 5 C,” says Thirlwall.

Producers should also consider a T3 Stage application of fungicide on their winter wheat.

“A T3 fungicide application is generally recommended, especially if seeding into corn residue or using a winter wheat variety that is more susceptible to Fusarium head blight,” says Roettele.

An application of fungicide during the T3 Stage protects the flag leaf from disease, maximizing its photosynthetic capacity and improving yields. The assessment for this application is done at the time of head emergence.

“Protection also includes scouting for any insect pests such as cereal leaf beetle, aphids and any plant diseases that may be present. Insecticide applications should only be made if those pests surpass the action threshold for the product,” says Roettele.

Thirlwall also suggests that based on the strong early establishment of this year’s crop, a plant growth regulator may be valuable to prevent lodging.

wheat starting to sprout
    Tracy Miller photo

“Wheat that is taller may need a plant growth regulator. Assess your stands and determine whether it’s important to try to manage the height of your wheat to reduce lodging.”

Georgian View Ag Services’ Davenport says that the ideal time for application of the plant growth regulator would be during the 30 to 32 Stage of Zadoks Growth Stage.

“This is when tillering has finished, and stem elongation is happening. The head should be about 1 cm above the crown, and application can occur until two nodes are present. There still is value after this timing but everyone should target this timing,” explains Davenport.

Once the crop is protected from challenges causing yield loss, how can producers maximize the potential of their wheat crop?

Maximizing yields

The economic climate, as well as ideal fall establishment, makes the 2023 winter wheat crop the perfect opportunity to push to improve yields.

“We can likely expect higher yield potential wheat, with a significant number of acres planted near their optimum planting window,” says Davenport.

“Right now, there are many farmers pre-paying for fertilizer and making cropping plans. With these positive things in mind, we should be planning for a potentially strong crop and should be targeting full nitrogen rates at this point in time.”

When strategizing on how to get the most yield out of the 2023 winter wheat crop, producers must also consider the high cost of inputs, including fertilizer in recent years. This may be reason for farmers to consider new variations of nitrogen or application methods that will maximize the utilization by the crop.

When determining a strategy for nitrogen application, Davenport says that it comes back to assessing the stand and determining the potential number of heads per square foot.

“This is a good baseline to determine whether you should be promoting tiller growth immediately, particularly when there are a limited number of heads per square foot. If there is a very high volume of tillers, then it may be better to wait.

“We don’t want to promote growth on these subsidiary tillers that likely will abort anyways and otherwise have a higher probability of lodging.”

Davenport shares that there are a few strategies that can be used to get fertilizer on the winter wheat crop this spring.

“In all first passes, pair nitrogen with sulfur. A single pass strategy can be utilized to promote tiller growth immediately, as soon as the crop greens up,” says Davenport.

“A two-pass strategy can be utilized when managing lodging risk. During the first application we want to meet around 50 to 60 percent of total nitrogen needs upfront with sulfur prior to stem elongation. The second pass will occur further into stem elongation, typically in later May.”

“The three-pass strategy may be warranted in situations with extremely high lodging risk and nitrogen loss potential, such as on heavy clays.”

Davenport reminds producers to “plan ahead, reassess in spring, and execute their plan. Continue to fine-tune timings for applications and crop monitoring when the weather changes.”

Nutrient application should be a priority for producers growing winter wheat this spring, as it will be valuable in meeting the yield potential of the crop.

This will help gain back value from the preventative measures previously discussed as producers will improve their returns.

“It’s important to consider when we have $9 to $10 per bushel wheat that every bushel counts. This is a good year to put high priority on management of wheat to maximize returns,” says Thirlwall.

On the whole, high seeded acres, good fall weather, and good prices make 2023 a promising year for winter wheat. BF

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