For many farmers in Alabama, wheat has always been a passive crop — until now.
“A lot of growers planted it when they finished with everything else,” says Leonard Kuykendall, regional Extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
“If they made 40 bushels per acre, they were happy, and if they made 50 they thought it was great.”
With current economics, some Alabama growers are investing more than $200 per acre in their wheat crops, says Kuykendall. “Basically, you need to make at least 50 bushels per acre. Where I work in central Alabama — in Autauga, Elmore and Talladega counties — our growers are starting to get higher wheat yields. We need to get our yields up in the 70 to 70 to 80 bushels-per-acre range, and we have growers who can do that consistently. This past year was a challenge with the freeze, but we've had some growers bumping up against 100 bushels per acre,” he said, speaking at the recent Alabama Corn and Wheat Conference in Huntsville.
Kuykendall reminded growers the market is dictated by gravity — what goes up must come down. “I don't know how many of you have done some type of forward pricing on wheat. Some of you have sold wheat in the past for a lot less than $5 to $7. If you haven't already, you may want to look at doing some sort of forward pricing, at least to give yourself a floor. Some growers were hurt with contracts this past year because they were hurt by freeze damage, and they weren't able to deliver on those contracts,” he says.
Several research trials have been conducted and continue to be conducted that show wheat yield advantages from certain practices, he says. “We've seen yield increases of 15 to 23 bushels per acre on sandy soils with deep tillage. We've also looked at varieties. We thought we had only one cotton variety for central and south Alabama, but we discovered that's not the case. It helps if you can plant more than one variety. There's no one top wheat variety, and many growers had to plant whatever was available this year,” says Kuykendall.
Growers in Alabama are doing a better job on their wheat planting dates, he says.
“Between the optimum planting date and one month later, you can easily have a 20-bushel difference based on planting date. Variety choice could add 10 bushels, planting date could add 20 bushels, and tillage could mean 15 to 20 more bushels. It all adds up,” he says.
If a grower is planting wheat in a true no-till system, and he doesn't apply a burndown treatment just before or after planting, he'll have weeds, says Kuykendall.
Other wheat research trials, he says, have looked at controlling aphids in wheat for barley yellow dwarf virus. They have included foliar and seed treatments, fall and spring applications. Kuykendall says his studies have shown an average yield improvement from treatments of 2 to 4.5 bushels per acre.
Ryegrass, he says, is very difficult to control. “Avoid it however possible. Ryegrass is in all of our waterways and field borders. If you're planting in a field that has not had wheat in it for awhile, you'll probably have ryegrass. Once ryegrass gets big, you can't control it. And there's no cheap way to control ryegrass. The materials probably will be in a $20-per-acre range. You can't grow wheat with ryegrass — you need to try and control it early if you have it,” says Kuykendall.
Many growers tend to plant wheat late and not apply nitrogen to the crop, he says. “You may have enough nitrogen out there already from your cotton or corn crop. What happens is that in the time the crop comes up, our fields get wet in December and January, and it's very difficult to get back into the field. If you're not sure about your nitrogen, you might want to put out about 20 units.”
During the fall or about 30 days after planting is the time for Alabama growers to be looking for aphids and applying an insecticide from Birmingham north, says Kuykendall. The threshold for treating is only two per foot of row, he says.
Harvest will be an important consideration for Alabama wheat producers this year, he says. “We have a few people who have planted a lot of acres in wheat. But wheat won't wait — it needs to be harvested in about two weeks, and you need to try and keep that combine running if possible.
“Some of my growers start real early — at about the last week in May. You have to have trucks and you have to have somewhere to unload. If that combine stops, you can't get it out. Our research has shown that if you're following wheat with soybeans, you're losing about one half bushel of soybeans per day after about the middle of June — so get the crop out.”