Pete Onley's been looking at his wheat crop these days the way he views the changing agriculture scene. In a nutshell, he's got to be flexible, especially this spring.

Walking his fields on the eastern shore of Virginia, Onley looks at wheat that isn't near the size it should be as spring warms the soils. In early March it was barely an inch tall. Some of the wheat didn't come up until the first week in January.

The situation gives him cause for concern and consideration about how to manage this season's wheat crop. The reason: A cold, dry December and not enough rain this winter.

When he planted wheat in November, Onley had already made the decision to go no-till because of high fuel prices. Cold weather has piled on the problems.

“Our wheat crop is as bad as it's ever looked,” Onley says, while sitting in his Accomack County, Va., farm office.

“It was dry and cold when we planted wheat and it got even drier and colder after that,” Onley explains. Folks on the eastern shore had almost nine inches of rain by March last year. This season, however, the rain total looked more like four and half inches.

On the weather side, “It wasn't as though we had super, super cold temperatures as much as it was that day after day and night after night would average five to 10 degrees below normal,” Onley says.

“We had bright sun shiny days, but the ground just didn't have the opportunity to warm up,” Onley says.

Consequently, the stand was variable and spotty during the late winter months when it normally would be progressing. “It's been emerging in spots all winter long as the moisture and temperature allowed.

“It doesn't look pretty,” Onley said in early March. “And I think we've got all the stand we're going to get.”

Because of the porous soils on the eastern shore of Virginia, farmers split their nitrogen applications into three, says Mark Alley, Virginia Tech agronomist.

After the variety has been selected and the crop has been planted, nitrogen fertilizer is the only yield-building factor that can be manipulated, Alley says.

In early March, Onley was studying strategies to try to pull this crop through.

“We split-apply our nitrogen,” Onley says. “We make our first application in early- to mid-February and the second application in the middle of March.”

The spotty stand and delayed growth of the wheat was causing him to stop and consider just how much good that third application of nitrogen would mean at harvest.

“What we're going to do is look at each field and assess what potential we have at the time,” Onley says.

“The price that nitrogen is, we don't want to be putting out more than we'll be able to utilize with the stand,” Onley says.

In a normal year, Onley would apply a total of 110 to 115 pounds of nitrogen per acre. He was uncertain in early March whether the full regime of nitrogen would actually benefit the crop.

“The second shot of nitrogen is very important,” Onley says. The second shot goes on just as the wheat is coming into the joint stage. “It needs that extra shot of nitrogen to make sure that the head fills out.

“What we're going to do is look at each field and assess what potential we have at the time,”

“We don't have the stand and it appears to be much later,” Onley says. “I don't know whether it can make up the time frame. That remains to be seen.”

After making a tiller count in March, Onley cut the nitrogen rate 10 percent across the board. “The tiller count was surprisingly better than I thought it would be,” he says.

Will the delay in growth mean an increase in disease pressure? Onley's uncertain about that, but because he has the 300 acres of wheat scouted for diseases and insects, he was ready to apply fungicides on an as-needed basis beginning in April.

Powdery mildew is a major concern for Onley. He uses Tilt where diseases are a problem. “Most of the time, I have problems with wheat diseases, it's behind double-cropped soybeans.”

As for yields, the 2001 wheat crop will be a mystery until it's harvested. In a normal year, his wheat yields range from 75 bushels to a high of 90 bushels per acre. “The best I would hope for this season would be average yields — maybe 75 bushels per acre,” Onley says.

“With this wheat crop, just as with anything else these days, I'm going to have to be flexible,” Onley says. “All decisions are not going to be perfect. At this point, I'm going to play it the way it comes.”