Winter Wheat – what to consider for a successful crop
Winter wheat is one option to consider when planning a winter cereal field, but there are many factors to think about for a successful crop.
“Winter wheat yields 15 to 20% higher than CWRS (spring wheat) and with the difference in its value – winter wheat averaging less per tonne – economically, it breaks out more or less evenly,” says Clair Langlois, crop extension specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“If a producer has a field that is normally too wet to plant early in the spring, it may be a candidate for winter wheat this fall. Not only would the field be planted at a more favourable time of year, the crop can also take advantage of the spring moisture.”
Another benefit of planting a winter wheat crop, says Langlois, is that it spaces out equipment and staff resources from the intensity of spring planting time.
Langlois points out there are risks of any winter crop, primarily winter survival. “In the case of winter wheat, surviving the early spring months can also be a risk, given warm weather above the ground and frozen roots under the ground, or the potential of spring flooding. Crop insurance may help mitigate the risk.”
Once the decision has been made to plant winter wheat, Langlois says there a few things to consider:
“The timing of when to plant is very important, as yield losses or crop failure can result if planted outside of the planting window. If a producer is not going to try grazing the crop before winter, the earliest winter wheat should be planted is August 20. This prevents potentially getting too much top-growth that brings on diseases like snow mould, which can create overwintering problems.”
The ultimate planting time, Langlois explains, depends on where the field is located. “Late September is the target date for the south. In central Alberta, it is the last week of August to the first week of September, and in northern Alberta and the Peace, the target date is the last week of August.”
“Winter wheat needs to be planted at the correct seeding depth of 0.5 to 1 inch. Unlike central and southern regions, winter wheat planted in the northern parts of the province cannot afford to wait for moisture and should be seeded at depths down to 1.25 inches, to a maximum of 1.5 inches.” If moisture is not available within the top 1.25 inches and the calendar year is ticking away Langlois says it might be best to wait another year to plant winter wheat.
In addition to proper seed depth, Langlois says it is important to have a good seed population. “Winter wheat requires a seeding rate of 350-400 viable seeds/m2 (34-38 viable seeds/ft2). It’s important producers know the thousand kernel weight (TKW) of the seed being planted. A seeding rate calculator will help determine the proper seeding rate.”
“The third most important planting decision is to plant into trash, or have good stubble. Four inches is the ideal height of any stubble to catch the snow and to provide good insulating properties, however a 6-8 inch stubble height of canola will do nicely. In northern regions where you cannot afford to wait for canola, following a pulse crop is common, even though by spring there is not much stubble left.”
Producers also need to consider variety, says Langlois. “The most important trait is winter survival, not yield. Next is maturity. You need to consider when you would be harvesting a spring barley crop. A late maturity rating may put your harvest plans in jeopardy, so keep this in mind in the shorter growing areas. Producers should also consider lodging resistance and the disease package.”
“Lastly,” says Langlois, “plant your winter wheat with a full regiment of fertility. Do not cheat your winter wheat. It has to make it through the winter months and takes longer to grow.” If there is any concern you will not get to apply a split application of nitrogen the following early spring, Langlois says it is better to give all the nitrogen at planting time as long as it not with the seed. “This method is practiced quite successfully in Alberta without hindering winter hardiness.”