© 2021
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

From bumper to bust - tough choices on wheat conditions

Layton Ehmke

Following months and months of incredibly dry weather, the good news is that much of Kansas finally got some badly needed rain, ice and snow several weeks ago back in January. With that precip, the wheat plant roots are finally starting to grow.

And it looks like a fair amount of the Kansas wheat crop now has a future.

The bad news is that a fair amount of wheat in western Kansas and eastern Colorado never came up last fall. Here in the southern parts of Lane and Scott counties, I’ve seen numerous fields where maybe 5 to 30 percent of the field emerged in spots all over the field. On the rest of the fields, the topsoil had dried out and, in a lot of cases, had turned hard as a rock. Some of the seed in those areas did germinate but died. A lot of the rest of the seed just lay there waiting for moisture.

Then when moisture did arrive, the seeds starting imbibing, soaking up the moisture and finally sprouting. One of the main problems with this is we are now in February. With super late emergence dates, yields are definitely impacted. While the good areas of a field may have a fairly normal yield, the wheat that is just now germinating might yield maybe 10 bushels an acre.

While the wheat is late, stands are going to be thin and will not have time to develop many tillers. There should be plenty of winter and cold temperatures left for this wheat to vernalize, but tiller development time has been cut very short.

In addition, all of the wheat I’ve seen in western Kansas just looks ugly. Between the sub-zero temperatures and 50- to 60-mph winds, the top growth was burned off. But on most of the wheat, if you look underground, we’re in good shape. The roots are alive and are doing just fine.

I asked K-State Extension wheat specialist Romulo Lollato what he thought about the yield potential of the late emerging wheat. He said because of the late emergence, the wheat has about half normal yield potential.

He also said these fields will have higher than normal potential for weed problems. Too, if certain herbicides are applied now to a field which could be abandoned later, those herbicide choices could limit which crop we rotate to. For instance, if we applied Rave now then later decided to destroy the wheat crop, we’d have problems if we planted grain sorghum.

Romulo says with very favorable spring weather, these poor stands could still yield 30 bushels an acre. Remember what happened last year? We had highly favorable , once-in-a-lifetime conditions and even poor stands turned in miracle yields. But I’m not counting on that happening again.

Compounding the problem today are very low wheat prices which especially threaten the profitability of fields with poor stands. Looking at things from the profitability standpoint, Romulo says maybe grazing out the wheat then planting a spring crop would be the way to go.

After looking at a number of these fields, my intuition is that with normal spring weather, we’re looking at a yield potential of maybe 10 or 15 bushels per acre. It could be higher depending on how many “good areas” there are in the field. But also as another farmer pointed out, those “good areas” could come home to haunt us by helping pull yields up high enough to reduce crop insurance payments.

So what do we do with these problem fields? One possibility is to just let them go and see what happens. Take what yield you can get and hopefully crop insurance will take up some of the slack. But these fields will be thin, late and weedy. You’ll definitely need to spray for weeds. Also you are going to have lower yields by doing this, plus you’ll not have a lot of crop residue left over after harvest.

Romulo says maybe you’ll make the most money maybe by grazing out the wheat and then planting a spring row crop—as far as herbicide restrictions allow. He adds that maybe you’ll want to apply some extra nitrogen to help the tillering process.

Also since we have some winter left, and now have topsoil moisture to germinate a crop, another possibility would be to interseed the stand with winter wheat. We should have enough time for this late planted wheat to vernalize. However, depending on your present stand and how much of that would survive a planting operation, I’d think about seeing rates of 80 to 100 pounds per acre because our tillering time has definitely been cut short.

Another possibility would be to interseed with spring triticale or spring oats which, with the surviving wheat, could be grazed out or cut for hay. Or you can destroy the wheat and plant grain sorghum or forage sorghum. But before you do anything, check with your crop insurance agent. 

Vance and Louise Ehmke grow certified seed wheat in Lane County, Kansas.