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Growing winter wheat within the parkland region

Critical challenges compared to drier grassland areas.

November 26, 2007  By John Harapiak

Over the past decade, the amount of acres planted to winter wheat has been
steadily increasing within the prairie region. This trend has been reflective
of the renewed interest in this crop. However, growers located within the parkland
region must overcome some unique challenges if they are to capitalize on the
benefits that exist from adding winter wheat to their crop rotations.

Crop consultant Jay Bruggencate of Demeter Solutions (l) and Craig
Shaw conduct a late April examination of winter wheat plants in a crop seeded
into canola stubble. Note the variable and rather limited residue cover
required for successful establishment of winter wheat in the parkland region
of west-central Alberta.

Practical winter wheat benefits
For Craig Shaw, whose goal is to have this crop account for 20 percent of his
seeded acres, there are two key benefits gained from growing winter wheat. Adding
a winter cereal provides a means for maximizing the value of his high fixed
costs in seeding and harvesting equipment. Secondly, Craig feels that adding
winter wheat assists in reducing his personal, harvest-related stresses. Shaw
points out that, "Adding winter cereals to my crop rotation helps to spread
out my workload and can also reduce my time crunch at seeding and at harvest."

Lower adoption on Black soils
While the production of winter wheat within the Brown soils of the southern
prairie grasslands is increasing, growing of this crop on the Black soils in
the parkland region is much less common. Shaw, whose farm is located near Lacombe
in west-central Alberta, is convinced that the challenges of including winter
wheat in a cropping rotation on these highly productive soils can be rewarding.
For the past three years, Shaw has used the agronomic services offered by CCA
Jay Bruggencate to help him fine-tune his cropping programs, including those
used for growing winter wheat. Shaw points out that he regards Jay as "an
important business partner in my farming operation."


Changes to crop management essential
Shaw admits that he had to significantly refine his cropping systems for growing
this crop on his farm. He states, "It is not easy for first-time growers
to get their heads around the fact that winter crops are significantly different
from their spring counterparts." This challenge has led to many unnecessary
failures in growers' first attempts to grow winter wheat. According to Shaw,
"In the parkland region we are often forced to contend with a very tight
window for fall seeding and harvesting if we are to successfully grow this crop."

Initial preference for canola stubble
The greatest challenge faced by Shaw was getting the prior crop harvested early
enough to meet the suggested winter wheat seeding target window of August 15
to September 15. At first, Shaw preferred to seed this crop on canola stubble.
However, that meant getting the canola seeded in April, as well as possibly
selecting an earlier maturing, lower yielding variety of canola. Canola stubble
was preferred because it offers at least some ability to trap a snow cover.
However, the snow cover is not normally excessive in canola stubble, therefore,
these fields tend to warm-up more quickly in the spring. This benefit had to
be balanced against the fact that heavier snow cover in cereal stubble offers
a longer period of protection from spring frosts, to which winter wheat can
be vulnerable.

Other stubble options
Shaw feels that growing winter wheat after an earlier maturing barley variety
is also a potential option, but rules out spring wheat stubble, since volunteer
spring wheat is a greater concern as a grain contamination issue than is barley.
Planting into a field of barley harvested for silage is another possibility.
The risk of introducing wheat streak mosaic into a winter wheat stand due to
the potential for 'green bridging' of diseases on re-growth after the barley
is harvested for silage is a concern.

Winter wheat stubble
Shaw states, "More recently I have been seeding winter wheat back onto
recently harvested winter wheat stubble with reasonable success. We will use
an in-crop disease control program in the second year. While we may pay a small
yield penalty, I feel it is not nearly as bad as if I try to grow spring wheat
on spring wheat." Shaw feels that for his farm, planting winter wheat on
pea stubble can be risky because of lower crop residues. However, he admits
that in the higher snowfall areas located to the west of Lacombe, growers have
successfully grown winter wheat on pea stubble and even on bare ground.

Winter wheat plants emerging between the rows of stubble from a
stand of winter wheat harvested during the previous year. Note the excellent
protection afforded to the emerging seedlings. Jay Bruggencate, who is a
CCA (Certified Crop Advisor), indicates that one of his agronomic tasks
for this up-coming growing season will be to closely monitor disease pressure
in this field of back-to-back winter wheat production.
Photo Courtesy
Of Jay Bruggencate, Demeter Solutions.

Potential for reduced herbicide usage
Researchers located at the nearby AAFC Research Station have found that growing
winter wheat has advantages that extend beyond a higher yield potential. For
example, a competitive winter wheat crop can reduce or eliminate the need for
applying a wild oats herbicide. Shaw indicates that he does not spray for wild
oats unless he has a thin stand. In many cases, his total weed control program
consists of an application of a relatively cheap broadleaf herbicide in the
spring of the year.

Fertilizer program for winter wheat
According to Shaw, from a N-P-K-S fertility point of view, he treats his winter
wheat much the same as his CPS wheat, except that he applies more fertilizer-N.
He says, "We usually need to be in the range of 150lb/ac of total N (soil
and fertilizer) if we are aiming at achieving 100bu/ac crop. We usually apply
50 to 60 pounds of N at the time of seeding and then follow-up with another
50 to 60 pounds of urea-N that is broadcast applied in the spring. We have experienced
good luck with the spring broadcast urea applications, as long as it is applied
early. In the past, we side-band applied the entire amount of N at the time
of seeding, but we dropped that practice. We felt that the crop was running
short of N, which resulted in the production of 'pie-bald' wheat kernels. We
were also experiencing an excessive amount of early vegetative growth and some
lodging problems." Bruggencate points out that, "Shaw's opener has
a SBU of just over 40 percent, making it possible to apply about half of the
N required directly in the seedrow."

Good stand establishment is # 1 priority
Shaw indicates that if you get the basics of seeding winter wheat correct, then
the chances of success are quite high. He states, "In the parkland, experience
has taught me that you can't get away with the same approach to establishing
a stand of winter wheat that is possible within southern Alberta. In this region,
the ideal conditions for successfully establishing winter wheat can decline
quite rapidly. Timing is everything, so when the conditions are right, you must
be prepared to act. In addition, if you seed late or too deep, you have failed
to provide the ideal seedbed conditions and as a result, you have compromised
the ability for the plants to survive winter." Bruggencate agrees, also
pointing out that the window for timely planting of winter wheat in the parkland
region tends to be narrower, due to the greater frequency of less favourable
harvesting conditions than is the case in southern Alberta.

Stubble height less critical
Within the parkland region, Shaw has found that, "While stubble cover is
important, stubble height is not as important an issue as we once thought. We
found that eliminating conditions that allow the ground to become bare in the
early spring is extremely important. This is somewhat of an art that is learned
through experience and involves maintaining snow cover fairly late into the
spring. When the snow does disappear, we have found that canola stubble allows
the soil to warm more quickly compared to stubble from other crops."

Winter wheat provides crop diversity
Shaw indicates that, "Our success rate has been pretty high and even in
poorer years, we have found that much like canola, winter wheat has an ability
to fill-in the thin patches. If your spring stand is not perfect, you will still
get a reasonably good crop but you will miss out on the high yields that you
were aiming to achieve. We like including winter wheat in our rotations because
we are growing a crop at a different time than the spring seeded crops. We are
therefore spreading the risk against whatever conditions Mother Nature chooses
to throw at us."

*John Harapiak has more than 40 years of western Canadian based
fertilizer related experience. He will continue to contribute stories to
Top Crop Manager. He can be contacted by e-mail at: Telephone:
(403) 281-3132


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