Wheat producers in north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley hit a “home run” with the crop last season, boosted by record-high prices and exceptional yields, but acreage is expected to decline for 2008-2009, says Charlie Burmester, Auburn University Extension agronomist.

“We had a very good year last year,” says Burmester. “There were several growers who averaged in the 90-bushel-per-acre range, and some who even averaged more than 100 bushels per acre.”

But the vagaries of the market will lead to a drop in wheat acreage this year, he adds. “I expect our acreage to be down by about 20 to 30 percent from last year due primarily to prices and also due to issues with the Hessian fly,” he says.

Many of the growers in his region planted wheat for the first time in 2007, says Burmester, and much of that was double-cropped with soybeans. “In addition, some of these farmers grew corn and cotton, and some of them are just now harvesting no-till soybeans. That’s four crops, and a lot of these guys are just worn out,” he says.

The recommended planting dates in the Tennessee Valley usually run from the first part through the middle of November, but growers have been pushing those dates later, into December, he says. “But once we get into December, it becomes more risky,” he says.

Good wheat varieties were in short supply this past fall, says University of Florida Extension agronomist David Wright. However, there is a good supply of good varieties for planting this season.

Wheat for grain can be planted from early November through the middle of December in north Florida, says Wright. “Some of the better performing varieties in Florida are AGS 2060, Pioneer 26R61, AGS 2000 and SS 8641 which should be planted early. Other varieties that have done well in the Deep South are Oglethorpe and AGS 2031 which both should be planted early, and AGS 2020,” he says.

Some nitrogen should be applied at planting unless it is being planted after peanut and the hay was left in the field, says Wright. “Many of these varieties will yield best when planted in November instead of December. The seeding rate should be about 22 seeds per foot of row in 7-inch rows. Many old and non-recommended varieties were used last year since seed were in short supply, but that is not the case this year,” he says.

Currently the wheat market is sending strong signals to soft wheat growers that enough wheat is in supply to meet most needs this year, says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia small grains specialist. “As of early October, a large negative basis ($2 off July futures) remained in place, significantly reducing the chances of profiting from this year’s wheat crop. As the world market adjusts to this year’s production and current economic crisis, soft wheat buyers have shown growers that the large supply of soft wheat (not hard wheat) is enough to meet the domestic demand,” he says.

If growers reduce their acreage and ultimately the supply, the negative basis would soon diminish and prices would reflect more closely to the Board price of hard wheat, adds Lee. “Considering the cost of seed, the increased cost of fuel and chemicals, and the unprecedented rise in fertilizer costs, it will take a $5.50 to $6-per bushel contract at average farm yields (55 to 60 bushels) for growers to show a real profit,” he says.

Before planting a single kernel, growers should consider all of their opportunities to meet this price per bushel or to reduce their costs while increasing yields. “At current prices, a significant increase in farm yields will be necessary to demonstrate a good profit. However, if good contracts are at hand, then look for areas to reduce your cost while maintaining a potential 90 percent to 95 percent maximum yield,” says Lee.

Most inputs, he says, have an area where generally you can identify the potential to reach 90-percent maximum economic return to investment, he says. Lee lists the following ways for growers to achieve the most for their money:

(1.) Stay within the planting period of one week before and one week after your five-year average first frost day. This represents the recommended planting date for your area.

(2.) Choose a recommended variety for your area, preferably one with good Hessian fly resistance and disease resistance. Check the production guide for variety characteristics.

(3.) Carefully examine your soil test levels and use those fields that you will be able to reduce fertilizer costs. Plan to apply a maintenance fertilizer only. Use no nitrogen behind a crop of soybeans or peanuts. Use no less than 20 pounds of nitrogen per acre behind a cotton crop. At the minimum, disk the residue deeply or chisel. Do not no-till the wheat except behind conventionally planted peanuts. If your soils test low-medium, apply up to 40 pounds of phosphorus per acre in the fall only and 40 pounds of potassium per acre in the spring. (4.) Kill your weeds early. Do not try and save a trip across the field by applying your herbicides with your top-dress nitrogen. For wild radish, use Express Total Sol, and for radish plus other broadleaves, use Harmony Extra Total Sol. Examine your options for good ryegrass control. There are several.

(5.) Scout for aphids during the first 60 days of growth and only spray if the aphid population meets the stated threshold in the Wheat Production Guide.

(6.) During the latter days of January, begin counting tillers to determine the need for additional nitrogen applications for the proper tiller production. If tiller counts (a stem with at least three leaves) exceed 80 or more per square foot at Zadoks GS 25, then apply all remaining nitrogen at GS 30 (stem elongation). Usually this occurs during early to mid-February in the southern half of Georgia. In extreme north Georgia, stem elongation may not occur until early March. If the tiller count is less than 80 per square foot, then apply 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre to encourage tiller production prior to the onset of stem elongation. Complete the top-dressing prior to the first node stage. Nitrogen rates will vary according to the soil type, variety lodging resistance, irrigation capability, previous crop, etc. In general, total nitrogen rates range from 80 pounds per acre to 120 pounds. A tissue analysis is needed for final nitrogen application determination. It is assumed that the average tiller count will be above 100 per square foot.

(7.) Scout for diseases in late March and early April. Use the resistance of the variety to your advantage. Only spray if the predicted weather forecast favors the continuation of the infection on varieties with poor to fair resistance. Consider the cost of each fungicide and its efficacy on the target disease and use only if necessary. Chances are good that most fungicides protect enough yield and or test weight to return at a minimum a breakeven price.

(8. Harvest between 14 percent and 16 percent moisture.)

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com