It may be hard for Kermit the Frog to be green, but it was a lot tougher being grain in the Carolinas and Virginia last year. However, this year looks considerably different.

Hammered early and often by flooding, freezing weather and record heat and drought in the spring growing season, 2010 just wasn’t pretty for grain production in the upper Southeast.

In 2011, high demand for wheat worldwide will likely push wheat acreage up slightly across the Southeast. The continued high price for soybeans is also likely to influence some growers to take advantage of good prices on wheat and beans.

The high price of wheat may even influence some growers who typically grow wheat for a cover crop to grow it out full-season, rather than killing it in time to plant other spring crops.

Regardless of the how and why wheat is grown in the upper Southeast, there is little doubt 2011 will make being grain a little easier than in 2010.

Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech small grain specialist, says 2010 was by far the worst he’s seen — not just for wheat, but for all crops grown in the state.

“This year we’ve got a good wheat crop going into the spring. A lot of our wheat growers had an absolute disaster with corn last year, which gave them plenty of time to get wheat planted in a timely manner.

“Many growers took advantage of the early planting opportunity and those who did have a good stand and really nice looking wheat. Normally waiting a week or two to plant isn’t a bad thing, but this year we had 10 days of rain and cool fall weather. Those who waited to plant may see some yield reduction because we just didn’t get heat units to make a full crop,” Thomason says.

If there is a bright side to crop failure and wide-spread dependence on crop insurance payments to get by, it may be that farmers had time to plan fall crops and more importantly, they had a big residual of nitrogen and other fertilizers that were not used by the plants that sat week after week in hot, dry weather.

Problems with the previous year’s wheat crop left wheat seed supplies tight last fall. Most growers found the seed they needed, though in some cases not in the variety they wanted, Thomason says.

“Over the past few years Virginia wheat yields had been increasing every year, but the past two years put an end to that trend. The increases in yield, I think, come in large part because of the improved varieties our growers are getting from Carl Griffey’s breeding program. The new varieties keep getting better, so with better weather patterns over the next few years, we can expect yields to continue to climb,” Thomason adds.

Barley acreage also up

The Virginia Tech specialist says barley was not as severely affected last year as wheat. Barley acreage was up over 100,000 acres last year and may increase some again this year, he says.

A big reason for the increase in barley acreage over the past few years is the availability of contracts generated by the construction of a barley-powered ethanol plant being built by Osage Bio in Hopewell, Va.

The plant’s opening was delayed by a fire, but company officials contend the plant should be up and running this spring. The increase in barley acreage in Virginia has pushed local supply of barley to over one-third of the targeted acreage by Osage Bio.

“Barley is still a good option, even with wheat selling at $7-$8 per bushel. Beans at $13 a bushel or better make barley an even better option, because typically we see increased soybean yields behind barley,” Thomason says.

The demand for barley has spread into neighboring North Carolina, where Osage Bio says they have picked up several new contracts for the grain. Overall, wheat and barley production in North Carolina suffered much the same fate as Virginia growers last year.

In some areas of North Carolina, the growing season made it equally as tough to be grain. For starters, the Tar Heel state had one of the wettest falls, and coldest winters on record, followed by the driest April in more than 30 years. The combination of weather trauma had the expected affect on wheat and other small grains.

The outlook for 2011 is clearly different says veteran North Carolina State Small Grains Specialist Randy Weisz.

“We have a lot of good looking wheat this year. Growers who got their wheat planted in October have nice thick stands with high yield potential. Those who waited a few weeks got hit by some rains and wheat planted into late November is a bit thin. But the warm days we had in February really helped — especially on the thinner stands that got some early nitrogen.”

To take maximum advantage of the ongoing high wheat prices growers will need to maximize yield when they harvest wheat later this spring. To optimize yields between now and harvest time Weisz says growers should keep a careful watch on their fields as we get into April. 

A lot of wheat was sprayed with insecticides at top-dress time with the intension of preventing a cereal leaf beetle problem later in the season. Sometimes that works. But if the adult beetles enter fields well after the spray was made, it can fail. So even if an insecticide has already been applied, all fields should be checked for cereal leaf beetle in April to make sure they don’t defoliate the crop and rob some of that $7 per bushel yield, the North Carolina State specialist says.

At the same time as fields are inspected for cereal leaf beetle, they should also be checked for any foliar diseases, especially powdery mildew.

Harvest at proper moisture

Finally, to get every bushel of grain at the highest possible test weight, the crop needs to be harvested just as soon as it hits 15 percent moisture. Test weight can drop by 1 pound per bushel every time the mature grain gets wetted by rain or even very heavy dew, Weisz says.

In South Carolina, wheat and small grains were not so hammered by heat and drought. The 2011 crop, says Clemson University Peanut and Small Grains Specialist Jay Chapin says the South Carolina wheat crop got off to a slow start due to below normal temperatures in December and early January. It caught up fast with exceptionally warm weather in February. 

“Medium maturity wheat varieties planted at Blackville on Nov. 20 jointed the first week of March, and we would not want the crop to be a day earlier due to increased risk of cold injury. Wheat jointed the first week of March will have heads emerged the first week of April.”

The 2011 crop has good potential, but yield and test weight will be determined from here on out by the usual weather factors: 1) No bad luck from a stem freeze in March or a head freeze in April; 2) having moderate temperatures to extend the kernel head fill period during April and early May; and 3) it doesn’t start raining every day at harvest maturity.

Aphids should already be dead and gone for the season from seed treatment or foliar pyrethroid in February top-dress or earlier. If aphid treatments are delayed past mid-February in the South Carolina coastal plain, barley yellow dwarf control is reduced. Neighbors to the north may require even earlier treatment. 

The most consistent yield response to a fungicide application is at fully emerged flag leaf — usually early April depending on planting date and variety. Topdress fungicide treatments (February, early March) are too early to prevent leaf rust and glume blotch — the major disease risks. “If powdery mildew is severe enough to warrant a top-dress fungicide under South Carolina conditions, we need to be planting a different variety,” Chapin says 

“Foliar fungicide treatments are crop insurance in that they are typically applied before significant disease symptoms are detected. Over the past 20 years, fungicide treatments have been profitable on wheat less than half the time in our tests, but it still makes economic sense to insure a crop with good potential (60 bushels per acre) from the catastrophic loss of leaf rust or glume blotch,” he adds.

For growers in the Southeast, prices pushing $8 a bushel and a much better growing season in 2011 make ‘being grain’ a little easier.

rroberson@farmpress.com