One bright spot

Record wheat yield seen in Georgia If there's one bright spot in an otherwise dismal growing season for Georgia's drought-weary farmers, it has to be the 2000 wheat crop. At 52 bushels per acre, it's a modern-day record.

"Whatever was bad for corn, cotton, peanuts and soybeans certainly was good for wheat," says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia Extension agronomist. "The top three producers in the state this year topped 100 bushels per acre, and that never has happened."

Many growers, he says, initially were concerned about the effects of drought on the wheat crop. "We had good enough moisture in January, February and March to promote good tillering and deep root penetration. In addition, we had a very mild winter. Wheat is a remarkably drought-tolerant crop.

"A drier environment also translates into less pressure from diseases such as mildew, rust and septoria. Without these diseases, you'll have good test weight and good yields. The crop doesn't abort flowers under these conditions," says Lee.

The state's top wheat grower for 2000 is Roger Godwin of south Georgia's Grady County, with a yield of 135 bushels per acre - more than two and a half times the state average. It's the most wheat grown by an individual producer since the University of Georgia began keeping records in the early 1980s.

Despite ideal growing conditions, low prices still are holding down Georgia's wheat crop. Only 240,000 acres were harvested this year.

Georgia farmers who may be considering planting wheat this fall could learn something from the growers who have remained in wheat production, says Lee.

"It's going to take more intensive management to make wheat profitable, even if prices rise in the future," he says. "It will take a more concentrated effort to grow wheat. We no longer can throw wheat out onto the ground, harrow it in, put a little nitrogen on it and then forget it. You'll never break the 40-bushel mark with that type of production system.

"You have to make 65 bushels per acre to make a profit in today's market. It's like growing cotton or peanuts - you must know how to manage the crop, and this means knowing when to make timely applications of nitrogen and pesticides."

Those growers who consistently produce top yields recognize that wheat performs best with deep tillage, notes Lee. They also recognize that they must remain within a specific planting window for their farm location, he adds.

"These growers always use the highest yielding varieties. In addition, they always plant at a higher seeding rate than that used by the average grower. They're putting down the specific number of seeds required to achieve a certain plant population.

"These top growers also have a good fertility program, putting out 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen in the fall and following up with 80 to 100 pounds in the spring, maybe even in split applications. They also watch their crop to insure that they control aphids and diseases as they occur."

Some wheat producers, he continues, use tramlines to make more precise applications with their ground equipment rather than depending on airplanes. These tramlines are unplanted rows that fit the width of the tractor. "They usually use booms of 45 to 60 feet long so they can make those applications themselves."

Each one of these practices, says Lee, is a key element in an effective wheat production system. "When you eliminate one or don't follow through with a key management tool, then you begin to limit the yield potential of your wheat crop."

Determining the seeding rate is a first, important step in any wheat production, he says. "I encourage growers to look at about 35 seed per square foot. Depending on row width, this may be 22 to 24 seed per running foot of row. Using seeds per row foot as opposed to bushels per acre is very important."

In a trial conducted this past year, Lee analyzed two bags of the highest yielding wheat varieties available. One variety contained 9,610 seed per pound and the other variety contained 16,316 seed per pound.

"One contained very large seed and the other one contained very small seed. If you planted two bushels of seed per acre, you would over-plant one of these varieties and under-plant the other variety. We had varieties ranging from 11,000 to 15,000 seed per pound. It's important that growers look at seeding according to seeds per row foot or per square foot."

Wheat growers also are encouraged to use deep tillage, either chiseling or Para-plowing their land, says Lee. This may be a conflict for those growers who are attempting to convert to reduced or minimum-tillage systems, he adds.

"These growers should recognize that wheat yield potential is reduced in a reduced-tillage system. But that's okay, because there are other benefits to no-till. You're just starting at a lower yield potential, and you have to manage around that potential yield loss.

"In an extremely wet year, with water-logged conditions, it could have a more serious impact than in a year with dry conditions."

Current research, he says, is looking at planting wheat into old crop stubble and then coming back immediately after seeding with a Para-till. A roller, he says, is attached to the Para-till.

"In this system, you don't have the problem of wheel ruts, and the planting problems associated with using a drill behind extremely deep tilled soil. You can apply your fertilizer, put down your seed and apply any pesticides needed. Then, you can come back with the Para-till and loosen the ground.

"You don't go back onto that field unless it's absolutely necessary. You've got deep tillage, you still have residue left on top of the ground and you've used the no-till drill. You've increased your costs because it takes a lot of power to pull the deep tillage tool. In most years, however, it can be economically beneficial. We'll continue to look at this system."

Southeast data, he adds, continues to favor the use of a deep tillage tool in wheat production.

Nitrogen rates in wheat production will vary, says Lee, according to soil type and yield goals. "We usually recommend 80 to 120 pounds per acre in heavier soils and 100 to 140 pounds in lighter soils, where more leaching will occur. Specific rates will depend on your soil type and yield goal. You'll want to give yourself credit for any type of legume crop or nitrogen carryover from a summer crop."

Wheat variety recommendations are available, he says, in the University of Georgia Wheat Production Guide. The guide now is available in county Extension offices.

DESPITE DROUGHT CONDITIONS, Georgia wheat producers harvested record yields this year, with the statewide average coming in at 52 bushels per acre.

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