Ron_Heiniger_Stan_Winslow_Wheat_Crop
Ron Heiniger, left, Extension cropping systems specialist at North Carolina State University, discusses nitrogen fertility requirements for wheat with Stan Winslow, president of Tidewater Agronomics in Camden, N.C., during the Northeast Ag Expo Small Grain Field Day held at White Hat Seed Farm in Hertford, N.C.

Best wheat crop ever or the one you wish never happened

Unless there is a late season freeze or heavy disease pressure, North Carolina could well harvest its best wheat crop ever this year.

Thanks to a La Nina weather pattern, Ron Heiniger believes North Carolina could well harvest its best wheat crop ever this year.

“I think we’ve got as good a yield potential as I’ve ever seen in wheat. We could go either way. We could have one of the best crops we’ve ever seen or if we get that late freeze we could get one of the crops that we wish we hadn’t seen. Looking at the potential and where we need to go, I need you to go forward planning for that best crop we’ve ever seen,” Heiniger said at the Northeast Ag Expo 2017 Small Grain Field Day Feb. 23 at White Hat Seed Farm in Hertford.

In addition to the cooperative weather this year, Heiniger, North Carolina State University Extension cropping system specialist, credited North Carolina farmers for the potential to produce the best wheat crop ever: “You’re the best at what you do,” he proclaimed.

As he spoke in late February, the North Carolina wheat crop was off to a good start. Due to La Nina, Heiniger believes the next three months will be warmer than normal with just enough rainfall to keep the wheat crop moving along, By June, he expects a cooler weather pattern with more frequent rainfall with fairly wet conditions by the end of July.

“Wheat is made in March and April,” Heiniger said. “March is when that wheat crop grows off from jointing rapidly. You set the stage for a good wheat crop because that’s a crop that sustains as many tillers as possible, puts on the biggest head as possible and gives you the chance for better yield potential.”

Heiniger said it is critical to maintain tillers from jointing to flowering by supplying the nutrients the crop needs. “I have to make sure that I’m supplying the nitrogen, sulfur and other nutrients that the crop needs and of course it needs rainfall,” he said.

“We have to maintain available nitrogen through flowering and grain fill. That’s now our goal with this wheat crop,” he added. “We’re not looking at summer temperatures until May. We have a lot of time to get grain fill progressing at a time when our temperature regime is going to be moderate. That’s what wheat likes. It doesn’t like hot, hot weather. It likes those 70 degree days and 40 degree nights; those are beautiful. Wheat loves that stuff. What we have to do is make sure to sustain that growth.”

The key, however, is avoiding a late season freeze in March or April. Heiniger is hopeful North Carolina won’t see a damaging late season freeze this year. However, the risk is still there for a late freeze.

“We could have a 60 degree day and a 27 degree night for three or four hours and that’s all it takes is a 27 degree night for three or four hours at the wrong time” Heiniger said. “The only tool that I have is a prayer, and that’s about what you got. You guys got to plan for a big crop and let the prayer take care of the rest of it.”

The other unknown factor: diseases. Heiniger urged farmers to pay attention to diseases.

In fact, Christina Cowger, a researcher with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and an associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at N.C. State, said farmers need to be on the lookout for fusarium head blight or scab this year. She urges farmers to sign up for free scab alerts before April which is the next scab season for North Carolina.

The scab alerts are free and delivered by text or email. Signing up is easy at the website www.scabusa.org that allows farmers to actually look at their scab risk. The website includes daily in-season risk maps for each locale and provides scab prediction based on geography, grain type and forecast weather patterns.

At the field day, Cowger reminded famers that fungicides aren’t the silver bullet for scab control. She noted that fungicides such as Proline, Prosaro and Caramba provide an average of just 40 percent scab control. Variety resistance is critical.

Cowger advises farmers to be prepared to spray fungicides if their wheat is susceptible to scab infection. “Winter wheat starts being  susceptible at early flowering when anthers first come out; that’s when it begins to be vulnerable so that’s the best timing if the risk map indicates there’s a medium or high risk of scab,” she said.

As of now, wheat varieties only offer moderate resistance to scab. No varieties offer complete scab resistance. “Luckily there is quite a bit of breeding effort going into improved sources of resistance to scab so there is hope on the horizon,” she said.

In the meantime, work continues at N.C. State to develop varieties that can tolerate late spring freezes, but Paul Murphy, N.C. State’s wheat breeder said it is a tedious, time consuming and long-term task.

“There is a general feeling among wheat breeders that there are no differences among varieties with the ability to withstand a late spring freeze,” Murphy said. “There is no genetic variation, no raw materials that breeders can work with to try to improve resistance.”

Freeze resistance is a difficult trait to work with and Murphy noted that it is almost impossible to get data from the field because late spring freezes occur infrequently and when the freezes do occur, the various varieties are in different stages of growth.

“You have some varieties that aren’t in the boot stage, some varieties in the early boot stage, some varieties in the mid boot stage and some of them late,” he explained. “These small differences in stage of growth have a huge impact on the amount of damage that you see.”

Murphy said late spring freezes usually occur during the first three weeks of April when wheat is usually in the boot stage. The anther, or the male part of the wheat plant that contains the pollen, is most susceptible to freeze damage.

Still, work continues to find varieties that can tolerate late spring freeze. Murphy said David Livingston, a research agronomist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and an associate professor of crop science at N.C. State, was out in the field during last year’s late spring freeze and used a camera with infrared thermography to monitor freeze damage in wheat. He is trying to determine how the freezing actually happens in the canopy.

In addition, Murphy said he is developing progenies and trying to identify genes for risk tolerance with DNA markers. He is looking at crosses between varieties that have the most tolerance and least tolerance to see if genes can be identified that are tolerant to late spring freezes.

Murphy said it is a long-term project and will take up to five years.

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