Successful Farming - - WHEAT - By Bill Spiegel, Crops Edi­tor

Wheat prices have been an an­chor the last sev­eral years, drag­ging farm in­come down. For 2019, how­ever, wheat prices are one of the few bright spots in the grain busi­ness. It may make eco­nomic sense to in­vest more into the wheat crop to max­i­mize yields.

Lyn­don, Kansas, con­sul­tant Doug Shoup ad­vises wheat grow­ers to be strate­gic about nu­tri­ents that can boost wheat yields and to be cog­nizant of the right time to ap­ply these prod­ucts.

The build­ing block

Ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer is the sin­gle-most ex­pen­sive in­put in your wheat crop. It is also ar­guably the most im­por­tant ad­di­tion, es­sen­tial in de­vel­op­ing pro­tein within the wheat plant. It’s also vi­tal to the ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion of chloro­phyll.

Soft cash wheat prices have prompted some farm­ers to with­hold ni­tro­gen ap­pli­ca­tion in the fall. That is good from a cash flow per­spec­tive, but Brian Ar­nall says be ready to ap­ply ni­tro­gen if win­ter brings mois­ture to wheat fields. Re­search at Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity (OSU) sug­gests farm­ers can top­dress wheat as late as Feekes Stages 6 (joint­ing) or 7 (two nodes on the stem) and still have enough time to boost yield. That is right when the wheat crop is poised for rapid growth.

“When we put it on at peak de­mand, we’re see­ing bet­ter qual­ity, our per­cent of pro­tein is bet­ter, and yield is im­proved,” says Ar­nall, pre­ci­sion nu­tri­ent spe­cial­ist at OSU.

Ar­nall cites two years of data that sug­gest the latewin­ter top­dress ap­pli­ca­tion can im­prove yields 50%, com­pared with a pre­plant ap­pli­ca­tion of ni­tro­gen by it­self.

“It isn’t much dif­fer­ent than corn farm­ers ap­ply­ing ni­tro­gen in-sea­son when the corn is get­ting ready to re­ally take off,” he says.

Be cau­tious of how ma­ture the crop is, he adds. Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary ap­pli­ca­tions can be done with a dry fer­til­izer spreader since crop dam­age will be mi­nor. Later win­ter ap­pli­ca­tions re­quire a wide ap­pli­ca­tor, which nor­mally is a liq­uid rig with skinny tires. Keep in mind that ni­tro­gen ad­di­tives can help pre­vent ni­tro­gen loss, says Shoup.

“There hasn’t been much re­search on that sub­ject, but, anec­do­tally, I’m con­vinced we’ve lost ni­tro­gen the last two years,” he says.

Ar­nall notes that a 40-bushel-per-acre wheat yield re­moves 85 pounds of ni­tro­gen (60 pounds in the seed; 25 pounds in the straw). Few farm­ers man­age ni­tro­gen to max­i­mize wheat yield. Ar­nall sug­gests us­ing an N-Rich Strip in the wheat fields. Sim­ply ap­ply enough ni­tro­gen in one strip of a wheat field so that no mat­ter what, ni­tro­gen is not the lim­it­ing fac­tor. Use that strip as a ref­er­ence through­out the grow­ing sea­son. If the wheat in the rest of the field is not as green as the N-Rich Strip, more ni­tro­gen is needed.

Don’t over­look sul­fur

Time was when farm­ers re­ceived at­mo­spheric sul­fur free of charge. How­ever, the Clean Air Act of 1990 re­duced sul­fur diox­ide emis­sions from elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion. Now, sul­fur de­fi­cien­cies in wheat are much more com­mon.

“We don’t want to spend more money on some­thing we don’t need, but it seems as if we see sul­fur de­fi­ciency ev­ery other year,” Shoup says.

Sul­fur is es­sen­tial in the wheat plant’s for­ma­tion of chloro­phyll. With­out ad­e­quate sul­fur, yield and pro­tein po­ten­tial are limited, and the plant is not fully able to use ni­tro­gen and phos­pho­rous. A 40-bushel-per­acre wheat crop con­tains 10 pounds of sul­fur (4 pounds in seed; 6 pounds in straw).

“There is a high re­sponse to sul­fur ap­pli­ca­tion in wheat. It’s im­por­tant to not for­get about it,” he says.

The prod­ucts can be ap­plied at top­dress time in the win­ter or even into late spring, but use the right for­ma­tion, Shoup warns. Am­mo­nium sul­fate, am­mo­nium thio­sul­fate, or gyp­sum all con­tain read­ily avail­able forms of sul­fur. El­e­men­tal sul­fur is not a good choice be­cause it’s not avail­able right away.

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