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Come walk the crops with us — Assessing winter wheat

Sara Doerksen, AAg, Extension Agrologist Intern
Mitchell Japp, MSc, PAg, Provincial Specialist, Cereal Crops

winter wheat stand
Winter wheat
Seeding is progressing in many areas throughout the province. At the same time, winter wheat that was seeded last fall is resuming growth. On our May 15 crop walk, we talked about how to assess spring growth of winter wheat, as well as various agronomic factors to consider when growing winter wheat.

In our first video we talked about the environmental factors that affect winter wheat's ability to overwinter and some practices farmers can utilize to help increase its survival. The temperature can drop quite low during Saskatchewan winters, but snow is good at insulating and protecting winter wheat seedlings from the cold.

There are a few practices that farmers can utilize to help improve winter wheat's ability to overwinter, as well. Seeding winter wheat into canola stubble is a great way to improve overwintering conditions, since canola stubble is tall and sturdy and can trap snow well. Another tip is to seed using a low disturbance or zero tillage system, which keeps the stubble standing and intact.

Similar to growing other crops, crop rotation is an important management practice when growing winter wheat. Ideally winter wheat would be grown after canola because of the strong stubble. It is also possible to seed winter wheat on cereal stubble, such as barley, but it is important to leave a two-week window without green cereal plants (known as a green bridge), to prevent the transfer of wheat streak mosaic virus. Barley yellow dwarf virus may also survive on winter wheat crops. As a result, this also needs to be taken into consideration when barley yellow dwarf virus levels are high during the growing season. It is not recommended to grow winter wheat after pulse crops such as lentil or peas due to limited residue, which has limited potential for snow trapping.

winter wheat seedlings
Early spring assessment of winter wheat
using the bag method. After a couple of
days in a sealed bag with a wet paper
towel at room temperature, a new white
root has grown, indicating a healthy plant.
Winter wheat requires most of its nitrogen earlier in the season, ideally before the five leaf stage. This can be applied either all in the fall or as a split application, with some of it applied in the fall and the remainder in the spring. Ensuring that the wheat has enough phosphorus will help improve early growth and help with recovery in the spring.

In our second video we did an assessment of winter wheat survival out in the field. When assessing winter wheat for growth in the spring, there are a few different methods that can be used. Earlier in the spring after the snow has melted, you can check how the crop overwintered by checking for damage of the crown below ground. You can do this by pulling plants and keeping them in a warm, moist area such as in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel and placing it on a windowsill with exposure to the sun. After a couple of days, look for white roots – they indicate new growth, which shows that the crown has successfully survived winter. This assessment just provides an early indication. A final assessment using plant counts should be made between May 15 and 25. Ideally you will want at least 200 plants/m2, but if there are thinner spots it is also important to remember that winter wheat is able to produce tillers.

If you were thinking of seeding winter wheat this fall, there are a few things you can do to start planning now. In our third video we discussed some of the different things to consider. On fields where you want to grow winter wheat, you should seed canola earlier in the season and select an earlier maturing variety. This will allow for more time to complete harvest and seed the winter wheat in a timely fashion in the fall. Before harvest starts, you can get your seeding equipment set and ready. It is also helpful to have your seed and fertilizer booked and on-farm so you are set up to go once you are finished harvesting. You can find a list of winter wheat varieties available and places to buy the seed in the SaskSeed Guide. You can pick up a SaskSeed Guide at any of our Regional Offices, and you can also find the Varieties of Grain Crops online.

For our fourth and final video, we talked about irrigating winter wheat and the different winter wheat trials that are going on at the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre (CSIDC). When available, irrigation can be a potential tool that ensures water is not a limiting factor for crop development. There are various new winter wheat varieties that are being introduced with high yield potentials, and growing the crop under irrigation is one method to help ensure that these yield potentials are being met. Irrigated winter wheat plots grown in 2017 at the CSIDC had a 20 bu/ac increase in yield compared to dry land wheat plots.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation Crop Diversification Corporation (ICDC) are looking forward to sharing results from trials that they will be doing this year. Some of these trials include comparing varieties of winter wheat and hybrid rye using irrigated and dry land systems, as well as trials comparing different placement, rate, and timing of nitrogen fertilizer for winter wheat. There is also a trial for livestock feed being done, to test whether winter cereals such as wheat and rye can be harvested for animal feed in early summer in time to grow a second crop of barley for feed in the same growing season. We are excited to hear about the results of these projects and share them with you in the future.

To see the full details of what was discussed in our winter wheat crop walk videos, check out the videos stored on the Ministry’s Facebook page. For more information on growing winter wheat and to check out results from the 2017 winter wheat trial go to the Ministry’s web page on Winter Wheat, Western Winter Wheat Initiative's Growing Winter Wheat Webpage, or ICDC's 2017 Research and Demonstration Report.

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