A milder than usual winter, especially warm temperatures the last couple of weeks in February and on into March, is creating some interesting challenges for wheat growers in the Upper Southeast.

Coming off a big year for wheat, many growers upped their acreage, creating more opportunities for weather related problems.

High prices for wheat encouraged growers to apply nitrogen and other inputs when needed, keeping more wheat in production and out of use for winter cover crops.

Randy Weisz, small grains specialist for North Carolina State University says, “Some wheat around the state already has two joints and has either lodged, or is looking like it will fall over soon. I'm being asked what can be done about it.”

Here are four considerations Weisz offers to North Carolina growers to manage early maturing wheat:

1.) Stems with two joints will be killed by temperatures in the mid-twenties. Chances are good that we will have temperatures that low sometime in March or April, so those advanced tillers are likely not to make it to harvest. If a harvest is going to be made, it will have to come from the secondary tillers.                     

2.) If the crop is already lodged will there be anything to harvest next June? Perhaps not! For wheat that is already down, the best thing to do might be to mow it. Mowing will kill those advanced tillers (just like a freeze would), release the secondary tillers, and perhaps result in having a crop to harvest in June.

3.) If the crop is NOT already lodged, but looking like it will go over soon… hold back on the nitrogen rate. In many cases where the wheat looks lush and dark green it may not need any nitrogen to get it to harvest. I would not apply more than 70 pounds of nitrogen TOPS on very large wheat at this time… and only if it was looking a bit anemic.

4.) If the crop is NOT already lodged, what about a growth regulator? Cerone is the only growth regulator labeled for wheat. Cerone should NOT be applied to wheat before the flag leaf is out. If it is applied too early (like NOW), it may shut down the secondary tillers and prevent them from forming a head. So, to use Cerone, the crop must still be standing up at flag leaf initiation.

I suspect that will be in about two to three weeks for most of this advanced wheat we are seeing.

So, Cerone needs to be applied after the flag leaf is visible, and before the boot splits, Weisz says.

Last year was a big year for wheat in North Carolina and Virginia — close to a perfect years, says Dan Weathington, executive director of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association.

“We had about 630,00 acres harvested. During harvest, yields just kept coming in higher. I think our final state average was close to 70 bushels per acre. The price paid to growers was good,” Weathington says.

The extended warm weather has been great for wheat growth, but is proving to be a double-sided sword for wheat growers.

They will have to make some tough decisions in the next few days, and how well those decisions work out will likely determine the success of the 2011-2012 wheat crop in the Upper Southeast.

rroberson@farmpress.com