Huge wheat yields by eliminating weak links


want substantially better wheat yields without significantly increasing your production costs? Ontario farmers, help is here – in the form of intensive wheat production experts like Phil Needham. “Some Ontario wheat growers have already seen field averages of 120 to 140 bushels per acre and 160 plus bushels per acre regions have been observed on calibrated yield monitors,” says the owner of Kentucky-based Needham Ag Technologies. “Raising 100 plus bushels per acre wheat yields, while keeping inputs close to or the same as previous levels, may simply be a matter of uncovering the weak links within your management system and strengthening them.” Needham says most growers will find they have two or three significant yield-limiting factors, but others may have a higher number of smaller ones.

Needham grew up in England, where he learned the intensive production techniques that later helped him (over the last two decades) help growers in his new home of Kentucky double the state wheat yield. In England, the national wheat yield average is about 120 to 125 bushels per acre, with top producers achieving over 200 bushels per acre. While some growing season differences exist between Ontario’s and England’s wheat-growing regions, Needham says the rainfall and soils are similar.

uniform fields
“Stand uniformity and uniformity of emergence are the weak links for most Ontario growers,” he asserts. “Even with different soil types and topographies within a field, variations in emergence should be minimal.” Main reasons for deviations include drill/air-seeders not metering seed consistently, seeding depth differences or other soil-specific differences. “Poor emergence uniformity can also frequently be traced back to poor residue distribution with the combine,” Needham observes.

Most growers, he says, also need to do a better job scouting their fields and quantifying both stands and tiller populations to help manipulate tiller populations up or down with post-applied nitrogen applications. “To help improve consistency of nitrogen applications and help reduce lodging, I discourage the use of spinner spreaders unless they’ve been extensively pattern-tested for the product being applied,” Needham observes. He prefers split-applied liquid nitrogen applications in early spring, based on crop health and the number of tillers. “Liquid nitrogen can be applied uniformly and accurately with stream bars which almost eliminate leaf scorch, plus this form contains both nitrate and ammonium, with a staged release.”

top shelf tillers
How to effectively tie N rates to tillering is generally misunderstood, in Needham’s view. “With adequate moisture, maximum wheat yields are produced with 600 heads per square meter,” he says. “Assuming some losses, these will result from a population of about 250 to 300 plants per meter, depending on planting date and soil conditions, each with two to three tillers.” Crops with five to seven tillers per plant provide a tiller count of 1,000 to 2,000 per square meter, a crop canopy that’s too dense, he says. This will mean poor utilization of soil moisture and nutrients and increased pressure from foliar disease.

To get two to three tillers per plant, pay attention to the impact that seed size has on planting rate, and avoid planting too early and using too much fall-applied nitrogen. “Most wheat is planted at 1.5 bushels per acre with one shot of nitrogen,” he notes. “What should be done is to only have around 30 pounds of nitrogen (in addition to row placed phosphorus) per acre in the seedbed at planting.” This helps reduce the number of tillers and produces grain instead of straw.

The balance of the nitrogen (2.5 pounds per bushel) should be applied according to the number of tillers per square meter in the field. “If there are less than 300, apply 60 pounds of nitrogen at greenup to spur tiller development,” Needham says. “The balance of the split applied nitrogen is then timed around jointing.” If the tiller count is between 450 and 550, less nitrogen is applied at greenup, and if the count is closer to 700, only 30 pounds is applied at greenup, with the balance applied at jointing.

Needham says farmers should also look into improved soil and plant tissue testing, better variety decision-making and improved seed quality, gauging seeding rate by live seeds per square meter (and not pounds per acre), as well as better weed, pest and disease management. “Scouting fields is key,” Needham says, “Also use disease forecasting models, and invest in a set of nozzles specifically designed to apply foliar fungicides.”

award-winning yields
Who better to ask about achieving huge wheat yields than the current world-record holder, Mike Solari, who farms with his wife Margaret in Gore on the South Island of New Zealand. The Solaris’ most recent harvest was 232.52 bushels per acre of a variety called Einstein (bred by Nickerson, UK). Mike credits the achievement to “subsoiling the deep soil type (his soil is a fertile river silt loam) to get rid of any plough compaction, a nine-year crop rotation (two years grass-wheat-spring barley-peas-wheat-oilseed rape-wheat-winter barley; the record crop  came after peas), a team effort with agronomic advice and the right amount of sunshine and rain at the right times.”

The intensive wheat management techniques used by Solari were pioneered in the UK, but Jim Orson, special advisor of crops and agronomy at NIAB (England’s national, independent crop research centre) says besides these, other developments in the 1970s are important factors. These include fungicides, herbicides that effectively controlled grass, and the introduction of semi-dwarf wheats featuring less straw, more grain and resistance to lodging.

Orson also notes that it’s no accident the world record has been set in New Zealand. “Little islands deliver the highest yields…because of the maritime climate of relatively warm winters (allowing autumn sowing and some growth over the winter) and cool summers,” he says. “This provides a long growing season for winter wheat. Some of our crops are in the ground for nearly 11 months.”

For much of South Island (NZ) and England’s main wheat-producing areas, Orson says there’s a grain fill period of 42 days. He adds however, that “In much of South Island, lack of water can limit this yield accumulation, but there is a lot more summer rainfall where Mike farms.” •