Many wheat growers will be making a choice this spring — either apply nitrogen to see if the stands rejuvenate, or terminate the crop and plant corn.
Drought-like conditions took over parts of Missouri this fall, causing germination problems in wheat. University of Missouri Extension agronomist Rusty Lee says farmers are seeing thin stands in the east-central region of the state.
In the fall, wheat seed went into dry soil, and the moisture just did not follow. “The dry weather slowed wheat development more than I thought it would,” Lee says.
Farmers may see performance differences from field to field and variety to variety. This spring, growers need to evaluate the wheat crop and adjust their management strategies.
Just how dry?
Pat Guinan, University of Missouri Extension state climatologist, says November 2017 was the driest in 15 years. In fact, the entire fall season was the driest on record since 1999.
Statewide average total precipitation for September through November was 5.70 inches, 4.5 inches below the long-term average, or 56% of normal. Guinan says the dry spell has been ongoing over parts of east-central and southern Missouri for the past six months, and deficits have exceeded a foot in some of the driest locations.
The lack of moisture caused the U.S. Drought Monitor to indicate moderate to severe drought conditions in areas like east-central and southern Missouri. Precipitation continued to be a problem into the new year, with only light snowfall in the state. “It should be cold right now,” Lee says. “But a good snow cover would be nice.” He says any moisture would help wheat plants this spring; without it, farmers are forced to make a judgement call on the crops’ viability.
Assess your stand
The targeted fall stand for wheat seedlings before tillering is generally between 30 and 35 plants per square foot. Lee says wheat growers should make tiller and stand counts a priority, especially this spring.
Farmers may discover that their wheat plants produced few if any tillers last fall. However, all is not lost. “There is an opportunity for tillering,” Lee says.
Wheat plants are able to tiller in the spring. Tiller numbers can get a boost from early-spring-applied nitrogen. The University of Missouri says a rule of thumb is that fields with fewer than 80 tillers per square foot in the fall to late winter may benefit from split applications of nitrogen.
While fertilizer may increase tiller production, Lee cautions that it is not a cure-all. “Tillers can make up for thinner germination,” he says, “but if a producer has blank spots in the field, tillers will not compensated to fill in large, bare patches.”
At that point, farmers should consider terminating the crop. “If they put nitrogen out already, they will need to plant to corn or milo to avoid wastage,” Lee says. If no nitrogen was applied, farmers can plant soybeans.
“It will be a tough call on wheat this year,” he adds. “It is going to take evaluating stands and tillers at spring thaw or green-up.”