12 Agronomic Practices to Increase Spring Wheat Yields

Grant Mehring, WestBred Wheat Technical Product Manager

What’s the one thing that’s going to help you get higher wheat yields?

"Often, many management decisions are the key to increasing wheat yields," said Grant Mehring, Ph.D., WestBred Wheat Technical Product Manager.

Here are 12 management practices that could significantly increase spring wheat yields in 2021 and beyond.

Grant gave this presentation at the 2021 Virtual Small Grains Update Meeting, hosted by the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

Plant Certified Seed

• Cost: About $8-$9 per acre more than bin-run seed

• Benefit: Certified seed offers a potential 2-3 percent better yield than bin-run seed. In addition, Certified Seed allows you to select the right variety, Mehring said.

“You have plumper seed, purer seed, and many other aspects of certified seed that bump that potential yield up a little bit,” he said.

Certified seed is ready for treating and seeding, while bin-run seed requires more work to clean it up.

Learn about New Wheat Varieties

• Cost: Free

• Benefit: Keeping up with new wheat varieties gives you important knowledge for higher yields.

Mehring encourages looking at data from public institutions, private companies, and other sources of on-farm trials. He encourages growers to talk and learn together, as well as talk with seed salespeople and independent crop consultants.

“Try one new variety,” he said. “Throw out the worst variety and move on to the next variety.”

Treat Seed with Fungicide and Insecticide

• Cost: $1 per acre for cheapest seed treatment, up to $4-$5 for micronutrients

• Benefit: Protecting your seed investment could result in a 3 percent better yield 80 percent of the time.

“We do not know what planting will be like in 2021, but using a fungicide and insecticide seed treatment helps hedge against that planting environment,” he said.

Check Seed Depth, Calibration at Planting and Row Units

• Cost: Free

• Benefit: It makes for better planting, higher yield potential, and fewer skips.

“We don’t need to seed shallower than an inch or you’ll get root lodging,” he said. “We don’t need to be seeding deeper than 2 inches, or your wheat seed will have a harder time getting out of the ground.”

Check the Shapes and Sizes of the Varieties

“I’ve got WB9590 that is a little bit longer and has slender kernels. I’ve got WB9719 that is a shorter and plumper kernel,” he said. “Those seeds feed over the meter in our air carts differently. Calibrating your variety takes five minutes and will ensure you’re planting at the correct seed depth.”

He added that everyone experiences plugged row units, and it’s a good idea to check frequently to minimize that.

Use Starter Fertilizer to Get the Seed Off to the Best Start

• Cost: Not an extra cost if the air cart has the technology to dribble starter fertilizer down a tube or as a 2-inch by 2-inch band

• Benefit: It gets early planted wheat off to its best start.

Plant-Based on Seeds Per Acre Not Pounds Per Acre

• Cost: Free

• Benefit: Saving seed, reduced lodging

Mehring gave an example of WB9590 vs. Soren spring wheat. WB9590 weighed 39.6 grams per 1,000 kernels, while Soren weighed 27.2 grams per 1,000 kernels. If planted by seeds per acre based on weight, the grower would know correctly that 2 bushels per acre was 1.96 million seeds of Soren and 1.42 million seeds of WB9590.

Practice Crop Rotation

• Cost: Opportunity costs and gains

• Benefit: Correct rotation leads to higher yields in all crops.

Planting wheat after corn is a poor practice because both crops are susceptible to Fusarium species, leading to Fusarium head blight in wheat.

Aim for the Optimal Planting Date

• Cost: Free

• Benefit: In most years, early seeding increases wheat yields. By getting equipment and inputs ready to go during the winter, growers can start seeding when conditions merit it.

Soil Test and Fertilize

• Cost: Can be significant, especially with soil testing, analyzing and maps, as well as fertilizer equipment and fertilizer used.

• Benefit: It is a cost well-spent.

“Nitrogen is one of those things your crop will need if you start pushing for higher yields and protein at 14 percent,” he said. Mehring suggests holding 30 pounds of N back for later application if the wheat crop holds higher yield potential.

Control Weeds

• Cost: Varies

• Benefit: Weed control keeps moisture and nutrients available to the crop. Because wheat has many weed control options, the products used also set up weed control success for future crop years.

Scout and Apply Fungicides and Insecticides as Needed

• Cost: Spraying a generic fungicide will cost about $5, while making three fungicide treatments could cost up to $30 per acre.

• Benefit: Compared to untreated wheat, sprayed wheat can have a yield advantage dependent on disease pressure and application timing.

Mehring said that he likes to see a fungicide application put on with herbicide. Another fungicide application may be warranted to control Fusarium head blight based on the disease triangle and best management practices. Yield and quality are improved when a fungicide is used correctly, especially when Fusarium head blight is a threat.

Researchers are also studying another fungicide application to protect the flag leaf.

“Keeping that wheat healthier through the flag leaf does make some sense for some of our disease spectrums and production areas,” he said.

Keep Wheat Standing Tall and Not Lodged

• Cost: Free, but requires studying varietal wheat lodging scores, watching seeding rates, and perhaps considering plant growth regulators. It may be impossible to accomplish this with strong winds and storms.

• Benefit: Wheat that has not lodged may yield as much as 15-20 bushels per acre more than wheat that has lodged. Wheat that has not lodged is also easier to harvest.

Mehring encourages wheat growers to ask themselves if any of these items could add yield to their operation.

“Take a look at your cost of production,” he said. “See where you can maybe add one item that is free and one item that costs money. Make small changes every year. What you learn in 2021 will increase your yields for 2022.”

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