Farmers in the South who are encouraged enough by improved prices and yield potential to plant wheat in 2011 should not ignore production basics, especially during the most important times of development for the crop, says Erick Larson, Mississippi State University Extension agronomist.

Wheat production in Mississippi, as in other parts of the South, has ebbed and flowed in recent years, but an increase is expected in fall plantings.

“Over the past several years, we’ve had as many as 500,000 acres and as few as 100,000 acres,” said Larson at the Central and South Alabama Wheat Expo, held in Montgomery, Ala.

“One thing I can tell you from a production standpoint is that we’ve been producing some very good wheat yields in recent years. Of course, we’ve had a good environment for it. We’ve had a lot of wheat producing well over 80 bushels per acre, and some growers recorded yields as high as 110 and 113 bushels per acre. There is a high level of productivity potential with wheat.”

It’s important, says Larson, that growers understand the physiology and development of wheat so they can realize as much yield as possible.

Wheat is different from other crops, he says, primarily in that it is a winter crop.

“The three main growth stages for wheat are tillering, stem elongation or vegetative development after it starts to grow upright, and then the heading stages. Most summer crops go through the same development stages or progression, but with wheat, we have a winter dormancy, and that causes some issues,” he says.

Wheat doesn’t respond to our early planting systems as do summer crops like soybeans and particularly corn, he adds.

“Early planting can produce some problems in wheat production. In the South, we really don’t have as much true winter dormancy as the more traditional wheat-growing regions such as Kansas and even Kentucky. They have a very definitive winter season where the wheat is truly dormant and there is no growth during the winter-time.

“In the South, it doesn’t get cold enough sometimes for the wheat to go truly dormant during the entire course of the winter. If our wheat gets too lush in the fall, that can be an issue. If we’re late with our planting, the wheat can have a chance to catch up as long as other things like wet, saturated conditions aren’t holding it back too much,” says Larson.

In terms of management and what these different time periods mean, growers usually focus on the springtime in terms of its significance to wheat management, he says. But just as important are the fall and early spring when the wheat is going through the tillering stages.

“As far as wheat’s yield potential, you’ve got the number of heads, which will be determined during fall and up through early spring. Once the wheat starts the stem elongation period, possibly in early March in some areas, the number of heads is already determined.

“So if you have not put out your springtime application of nitrogen fertilizer in time enough to supply nutrition to those plants, you’re basically stuck with the resources and the physiological aspects of that plant for that time period.”