Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wheat Planting: Two Options and Neither is Great

Chad Lee and Jim Herbek, University of Kentucky

Getting wheat into the ground right now is a real challenge because of the dry, hard soils. Since many producers have locked in high market prices for next summer, we are assuming that all producers reading this fully intend to plant wheat. So, in the discussion that follows, we are removing the option of “not planting wheat”. With this in mind, producers have two options for planting wheat: 1) plant now and hope for rain, or 2) wait for rain and then plant. Both options have their risks.

Option 1. Plant now, and hope for rain

Positives: You get the wheat planted, perhaps a little early, but it is in the ground. Getting seed at the proper depth will be a challenge (see action item below).

Risk 1: Hessian fly. The recommended first dates to plant wheat in Kentucky are October 10 in northern Kentucky and October 15 in southern Kentucky. These dates are based on historical Hessian fly free dates and also coincide with first fall frosts. These dates are earlier than the first frost, recognizing that wheat germination is normally several days after seeding.  The soil is so dry right now that any wheat planted is not going to germinate until we get rain. So, the risk of planting a few days early is minimized some this year because of the lack of soil moisture.
Risk 2: Just a little rain. The wheat will not germinate until we get rain. One of the worst things that can happen is to get a little rain (maybe half an inch), which is enough to let the seeds germinate but not enough for the young seedlings to survive without additional precipitation.
Risk 3. Varmints. The longer seed stays in the ground before germination, the greater chance there is for mice, voles, etc. to dig up and eat seeds.
Risk 4. Soil Erosion. Seeding now may require some tillage to allow the grain drill to get through the soil surface (see Action Items below). If you do tillage, you increase the chances for soil erosion from wind and water. If you have fields that are rolling and you use tillage on those fields, a heavy rain could do severe damage to your fields.

Action Items.
1. If you decide to plant now and hope for rain, get the seed about 1- to 1.5-inches deep. In a year like this, there is no “seeding to moisture” unless you plan to use a backhoe in place of a grain drill. With soils that are very hard, you may need to run a disk over the field to break up the soil and allow a drill to get through. If you decide to do this, then try to do as little tillage as possible while breaking up the soil. Set your disk blades to run straight so the implement is not throwing dirt into the air, but simply slicing through the soil.

2. Calibrate the drill so that you are delivering the correct rate of seed. Perhaps increase your seeding rate a little since you have some slightly higher risks of seed loss.

3. Monitor fields once the rains come to determine the quality of your stands.

Option 2. Wait for Rain and Then Plant

Positives:  By waiting for rains, the soils will be softer, getting proper seed depth is easier, and tillage is not necessary. 

Risk 1. Later planting date. If you wait for rain, it could rain and rain and rain. This could push back the planting date, leaving you to scramble to get wheat planted. The later planting dates could result in lower yields, as research indicates.
Risk 2. Soil Compaction. This sounds crazy given the current soil condition, but if it rains a lot, you could find yourself trying to plant into wet conditions, which can lead to soil compaction.

Action Items
1. Calibrate your drill with all seed lots. Since you are not going to plant right away, you might as well make sure that your equipment and seed are ready to go as soon as possible. Once the rain comes and the soils soften, you don’t want to waste a day getting machinery ready. Do it now, while you have the time.

2. As soon as the rains come, get to the field and get the wheat planted. Since many fields have several soils types, you may have areas of a field with more soil moisture than others… or different fields with different moistures. You will want to double-check seeding depth when entering new fields and you may want to check it when entering different soil types in the same field.

3. Put blinders on and develop nerves of steel. The blinders are to prevent you from seeing your neighbors trying to plant wheat before the rains. The nerves of steel are needed when the blinders don’t work. 

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