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Frost seeding wheat getting more attention

Clearing some confusion is still necessary.


November 12, 2007
By Ralph Pearce


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8aBy all accounts, frost seeding spring wheat is a viable option for growers
in specific regions. In general terms, it improves yields, can have a positive
impact on quality of the crop and can even help control certain weeds. Why then
is it so hard to get growers to try frost seeding?

The answers vary, but in the end provincial extension personnel and researchers
agree there is a comfort level in dealing with a practice that is relatively
new. The 2005 growing season would have been the fourth year of studying frost
seeding but there was little opportunity to get in the field early. Researchers
and extension personnel were hoping for greater evidence of frost seeding's
advantages after three years of positive results. Still, Peter Johnson is undeterred
by that set-back, saying the benefits of frost seeding are evident, and worth
any risk associated with this innovative concept.

Reasoning must be clear from the start
A number of things must be well understood from the start, says Johnson, a cereal
specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
The concept of frost seeding is similar to that of no-till in that it requires
a firm commitment. "It is not for the weak of heart and you have to make
up your mind and decide that you're going to go forward no matter what,"
he explains.

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Generally, frost seeding is best for regions above the 2700 heat unit line,
and performs better in spring wheat than in oats or barley. But Johnson acknowledges
there are exceptions to those rules, including one Ilderton area grower who
seeded oats in 2003 with a yield of about 135bu/ac, and all at milling quality,
which at $185 per tonne at the time, made it the most-profitable crop he grew.
Another exception was a frost seeded field of spring wheat in the Niagara Peninsula.
Planted on March 12 of 2003, yields approached 68bu/ac. "And they rarely
get better than that with winter wheat, so for those growers, that's another
thing they should consider," urges Johnson.

Above all, the drive behind frost seeding is more for its effect on heading
date, even though seeding date is the most-cited criterion. "The earlier
we can make heading, the more chance we'll have cool temperatures and sufficient
moisture through the grain-fill period," says Johnson, adding the common
yield advantage figure that is stated is 1.1bu/ac per day. "If we lengthen
the grain-fill and fill it under cooler temperatures and less drought stress,
we gain a bushel per acre per day. All we're trying to do with frost seeding
is advance maturity."

Definite advantages under right conditions
The yield advantage can range from year to year, and Johnson acknowledges his
distrust of averages, since they fail to provide a complete picture. In past
years, his plots have shown very little yield advantage by seeding in frost
on April 2 and then into dry soil on the same field on April 6. At the other
end of the spectrum, he has seeded on March 30, only to be kept out of the field
by cool, damp weather until May 10. "In that situation, we had a 33 percent
yield increase," says Johnson. If nothing else, frost seeding tends to
have the grower better prepared to start planting when the conditions present
themselves. "When you're out there on the 30th of March, you have no clue
if it's going to be a year when you can get out and seed in dry soil on April
4 or May 4."

Another benefit Johnson mentions is improved tillering, as much as 25 percent,
which serves to compensate any losses in emergence. Also, the plants are shorter,
thus improving standability.

Risks are minimal
Some growers may argue frost seeding creates too many risks. Dr. Bill Deen concedes
there is risk in everything a grower does. But based on his results from three
years of study, the benefits of frost seeding are just too numerous to ignore,
especially given the average 30 percent yield increase observed when frost seeding
spring wheat. Deen, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture
at the University of Guelph, concedes part of the problem with convincing growers
of the benefits of the practice is the concern that 'frost seeding' into frozen
ground is hard on planting equipment.

Not so, he says. "Our experience is that if conditions are good with two
to three centimetres of frost, it is not hard on planting equipment at all,
and if the ground is too frozen, you quickly realize that conditions are not
right because the drill is chattering too much," explains Deen. "What
we're talking about are conditions where you'd have enough frost in the ground
to support equipment, but not enough to restrict penetration by planting equipment."

The willingness of the grower to move to a frost seeding system also depends
on two critical factors: timing and location. "We're talking about a system
that's applicable for growers who have missed the winter wheat window of opportunity
and by default, they're planting spring wheat, or they are in a region that's
suited to spring wheat," says Deen. All the more interesting is his work
in which he has used four different spring varieties to show the benefits of
frost seeding. Across all three years, all three locations within each year
and across all the varieties, there was a consistent yield increase. "Often
in field research we do not get such consistency in results, yet here is a case
where with this management practice, we're consistently getting a response."

Familiarity breeds confidence
Deen acknowledges there is a familiarity factor involved, and he echoes Johnson's
parallel to the no-till mind-set. But he points out that frost seeding is not
a new concept. "In the past, growers tried to broadcast seed on to frozen
ground and hoped it would catch," says Deen, adding there may some knowledge
of frost seeding but not on par with today's equipment. "Now, we frost
seed with a heavy drill that's able to put enough down pressure to penetrate
a small layer of frost, so what we're doing now is different than what they've
done in the past."

As for growers basing their decisions on one year's attempt, Deen suggests
that to be short-sighted, especially given that varieties and hybrids are seldom,
if ever, chosen on the basis of one year data.

More research into frost seeding is certain to follow according to both Deen
and Johnson, especially where weed control is concerned. But Deen cites other
factors including the use of starter fertilizer, response to tillage systems
and in regions farther north, the potential for frost seeding winter wheat in
November and December. Johnson adds that the spring of 2006 will be an excellent
time to consider frost seeding, especially in the Niagara region and in parts
of central Ontario, where it was too wet and no winter wheat was planted. As
always, Johnson is hoping for co-operators to plant in the spring to help generate
more data.

The Bottom Line
We first tried frost seeding spring wheat in 2004 and we have discovered
a few things about making it work successfully.

You have to have your machinery ready to go and be willing to be up at 2:00am,
then plant from 3:00am until it gets too greasy. With one fill-up of the air-seeder,
we can plant 70 to 80 acres each night!

It's best when the winter frost is out of the ground, then a light spring frost:
just enough frost on top to carry the machinery for a single pass only. Our
single disc openers can make a half inch furrow for the seed, which will cover
back in after the next snow or frost.

Frost seeding is not as hard on machinery as dry soil.

Frost seeded spring wheat flowers before the worst of the summer heat and matures
10 to 15 days after winter wheat, so this spreads our harvest workload.

Frost seeded wheat needs to be in early: March 25 to April 25 is good, and
we cannot plant other crops then anyway. If there are still snow drifts along
a hedgerow, we plant around them and put something else there later.

Starter P fertilizer is needed: we use 11-52-0 MAP.

Doing the math: we think a 50bu/ac hard red spring wheat compares well with
75bu/ac to 80bu/ac winter wheat because we get an extra premium per bushel from
the additional protein level we usually expect. We are doing trials to compare
winter wheat planting dates of September 25 and October 25 versus frost seeding.
We expect the yield we might lose by planting after October 15 will show it
is better to wait and plant spring wheat into frost. Lennie
Aarts, Wainfleet, Ontario
. Aarts farms 1600 acres with his
brother Peter. They also custom farm 1500 acres for neighbouring farmers.