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Walk Your Wheat Fields
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 7:09AM CST

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- As harvest wraps up, it may be tempting to hang up your scouting cap for the season and serve yourself a celebratory piece of pumpkin pie, or three.

But before you pack it all in (in every sense), consider scouting your wheat fields one last time this fall. A thorough walkthrough of young winter wheat stands can help you troubleshoot your planting system, plan for the spring, and maybe even earn that second trip to the Thanksgiving dessert buffet.

"If you don't evaluate it now, come spring, you'll get busy and then the wheat grows up and covers any of those imperfections and you've lost your chance to learn from them," Michigan State University Extension Educator Martin Nagelkirk told DTN.


Nagelkirk recommends growers grab a ruler or yardstick and make a note of three major factors: The number of plants compared to the estimated seeding rate, seeding depth and plant health.

If growers thought to make a note of their drill settings and seed size at planting, they are a step ahead, Nagelkirk noted. Comparing your seeding rate and settings to the actual emergence of seedlings from year to year can help hone in on the most efficient planting system for soils and varieties.

Start by counting the number of plants per row foot in several different places. Then, compare the number of successful seedlings with the seeding rate you aimed for at planting.

In an MSU article, Nagelkirk supplies growers with a chart that translates common seeding rates into the expected number of seeds per row foot, so you can compare your field's performance: http://goo.gl/….

For example, if you planted 1.8 million seeds per acre, you should expect around 26 seeds per row foot. If you find only 17 seedlings per row foot on average, it would be worth your time to try to figure out why only two out of every three seeds produced a seedling, Nagelkirk explains in the article.


If your plant count comes up short, consider three potential culprits: seed quality, moisture availability and too deep a seeding depth, Nagelkirk said.

Correcting where the seeds are placed in the soil is the easiest adjustment. Scrutinize drill settings and evaluate whether seeding depth varies throughout the field, he added.

In the silt loam soils of Michigan, a planting depth of 1 to 1.25 inches is usually sufficient, Nagelkirk noted. A University of Nebraska guide recommends growers go no deeper than 2 to 3 inches: http://goo.gl/….

"There're two competing interests," Nagelkirk explained. "If you keep it shallow, it [wheat] will emerge more quickly, which is usually an advantage. However, we get a little better winter survival if we go deeper."

Seeding depth can be determined by observing how far the seed is from the crown of the wheat plant. When the seed is nestled up against the crown, the seed was probably placed half an inch deep or less. If a thin, white structure called the mesocotyl is between the seed and the crown, measure it and add half an inch to its length to estimate seeding depth. You can see pictures explaining this measurement in Nagelkirk's MSU article: http://goo.gl/….


If your plant numbers and emergence vary across the field, crop residue could be the culprit, Nagelkirk said.

"If wheat emergence skips up a little bit, those skips are most often due to residue, especially in a no-till situation," he said. "Are you happy with how your combine is laying down residue? That can have a huge impact on the success of a stand of wheat."

Unevenly distributed residue can pile up and disrupt seeding or trap the emerging seedling and force it to rot below the surface, he explained.


Checking for foliar diseases can be worthwhile if wheat stands are putting up a tiller or two, Nagelkirk noted. North Dakota State University offers a detailed field guide to common wheat diseases here: http://goo.gl/….

Cereal aphids can be a vector for damaging diseases, particularly for Southern growers, he added. You can find a good guide to common cereal aphids from Clemson University here: http://goo.gl/….

Make sure to check for root or crown rots by pulling up the plant and examining the root tissue. Live tissue will be firm and white.

Growers who experienced the sudden artic plunge that chilled much of the Midwest in mid-November will most likely have to wait for spring for a full assessment of winterkill. However, a streak of warmer weather is a good time to evaluate wheat chances of survival, Nagelkirk added.

"If each day gets up to 50 or 55 [degrees], you can get some decent wheat growth," he said. "After a couple weeks, I would look for a dead or rotting or discolored crown once you split it down the middle."

Finally, make a note of unhealthy plants that might be a target for early insecticide or fungicide treatments, and jot down fields with thin stands or late planting that could benefit from an early nitrogen application, Nagelkirk said.

Then store your notes away, pick that celebratory piece of pie back up and toast the end of the scouting season.

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.


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