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Seeding Winter Cereals

By Mitchell Japp, PAg, Provincial Specialist Cereal Crops, Regina

August 2020

Harvest 2020 is rolling, so it's time to look into planting some winter cereals this fall. Growing winter cereals diversifies crop rotation, avoids pest issues like wheat midge and fusarium head blight, extends the harvest window and protects soil from erosion.

Canola stubble is ideal for winter cereals. The canola stems are stiff enough to remain standing after seeding and throughout winter. Tall stubble helps trap snow, snow cover protects the winter cereals from winterkill. Fall rye is more cold tolerant than winter wheat or winter triticale, so it may be a better choice when snow trapping potential is reduced although fall rye will still benefit from more snow cover.

Optimum planting time for winter cereals ranges from mid-August to mid-September, depending on what part of the province you are in:

  • August 27: Meadow Lake/Prince Albert/Nipawin areas;
  • August 30: North Battleford/Saskatoon/Wynyard/Yorkton areas;
  • September 3: Kindersley/Swift Current areas, and;
  • September 6: Maple Creek/Estevan areas.

The ideal stage for over-wintering is when the crop has three leaves. If sown too early, the stage will be more advanced and will reduce winter hardiness. In dry conditions, winter cereals will still vernalize as long as they imbibe some moisture, however, maturity will be delayed. Winter wheat can germinate on very little moisture.

Viable crops can still be planted later than mid-September. Recent research has shown successful planting dates well into October, although the risk of winterkill increases and the yield potential of the crop is reduced. Crop insurance coverage for winterkill was extended to September 30 last year.

Here are some important considerations when seeding winter cereals:

  • Not too deep. Chasing moisture does not work well with winter wheat. Winter wheat has a short coleoptile, so if planted too deep, the crop may not emerge. Aim to seed at 2-3 cm (0.75-1 inch).
  • Break the green bridge. Wheat streak mosaic virus is carried by the wheat curl mite. It generally arrives late in the season and has minimal economic impact. But, if the virus is transmitted from a late infected crop to your winter wheat, it will overwinter and could result in disappointing yields. The wheat curl mite requires a living host, so as long as there is a two week break where there are no green volunteers and the neighbouring wheat or other cereal crops have turned or been harvested, the risks to emerging fall/winter crops will be reduced.
  • Adjust the fertility plan for higher yields. A soil test is the best place to start for fertility recommendations. Winter wheat outyields spring wheat. New hybrid rye will significantly out yield older open-pollinated varieties.
  • Get started with a boost. Starter phosphorus and potassium helps establish winter wheat and encourages crown development for successful overwintering. Apply some nitrogen (N) at planting and plan to top-dress the rest of the N in the spring. All the crop N requirements can be applied at planting, but it is at risk of loss to the environment because only a small amount of N will be taken up before freeze-up. Winter cereals grow quickly in the spring, so be prepared to top-dress to ensure that it does not run short of N.
  • Seed quality counts. Research has shown that the most consistent outcomes with high yields started with good quality, vigorous seeding that is protected by a seed treatment and sown at high seeding rates. Seeding rates should be set-up based on the seed weight and germination rate, to establish at least 25-30 plants in the fall. Recent research also suggests that there may be a benefit to targeting even higher plant stands. If planting is delayed beyond optimum timing, increase the seeding rate to compensate for higher mortality.
  • Get control. A pre-seed burnoff may provide enough control to get winter cereals established, but be sure to control winter annual weeds. They start growing early in spring, resulting in a competitive advantage. Winter annual weeds, if not controlled in the fall, will be growing along with the winter cereals and may be more difficult to control in a timely manner in the spring.

For more information, please visit our Winter Wheat web page.

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