While wheat yields in the Southeast have trended upwards in the past 25 years, they have tended to be flat in more recent years, and this should be a cause of concern for growers.

“Looking at Alabama and Georgia state yields, we have moved our yields up to a level that tends to be more profitable with the rising costs of inputs,” says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia Extension small grains specialist.

“But a disturbing thing is that in recent years, that trend is pretty flat. We’ve moved to more of our productive soils, but our yields haven’t changed that much, so we’re in sort of this coasting mode,” he said, speaking at the recent Alabama Corn and Wheat Conference held in Huntsville.

Things change, however, and growers can’t afford to coast any longer, says Lee. “With fertilizer prices, fuel and seed costs continuing to rise, we must make some challenges to our system and the old way of doing things,” he says.

Several factors currently are driving wheat prices from the $2.25 to $3.24-per bushel range to $5 to $7 per bushel, he adds. “We’ve had declining acreage over the past 10 years, not only in the South but also throughout the country. We’ve also seen declining global supplies. Australia, Canada and the United States all have seen declining acreages due to poor pricing environments. In the past couple of years, this has tightened supplies, so we’re seeing tightening supplies and an increasing demand for bread wheat,” says the agronomist.

In the United States this past year, exports were up by 33 percent and total demand increased by 95 percent, he says.

Many growers want to know, says Lee, why there is a large negative basis when their wheat is being moved to the domestic edible market. “Part of this is because we grow more soft wheat than hard wheat, and the demand for soft wheat is much less. Hard wheat is used to make bread while soft wheat is used to make biscuits and other soft, confectionary-type cakes. The market doesn’t need soft wheat, and that’s why you’ve actually seen the negative basis grow larger over the past few months. But we still can take advantage of strong prices at $5 to $7,” he says.

In Georgia, wheat acreage has been from about 400,000 to 600,000 acres, he says, up from 250,000 to 270,000 acres.

“The trouble for us in Georgia, as it has been in Alabama, is that the seed supply wasn’t there at planting. Growers were faced with a tight supply for the types of varieties that normally are grown in the region, and many were forced to plant those from the Mid-South, Kentucky, Arkansas and upper Tennessee.

Looking at five-year yield averages in Georgia, they’re at about 50 bushels per acre, says Lee. “Some growers are producing 80 to 90-bushel wheat, but we must sustain that. The reason is that whenever market prices fall backwards a little, your break-even price will be at 60 to 65 bushels, not 40. At $5.50-per-bushel wheat, even with $200 input costs, you’ll need 40 bushels to break even. Now, we’ll be planting a lot more wheat and following it up with a lot more soybeans.”

To sustain high yields, growers need to look at their entire production system, from planting through harvest, says Lee. It’s important, he says, that weeds be controlled early to prevent yield loss.

“What I’ve seen early on, is that we can cause burn if we mix a little bit of nitrogen in with our herbicide. If you’re not careful, you can get severe burn. Some studies indicate that early on, that leaf tissue loss doesn’t hurt. We want to be careful about managing our time and inputs together,” he says.

Another important factor — in the fall and the spring — is controlling barley yellow dwarf virus, says Lee. “We can get very serious yield loss when we’re not paying attention to managing the aphids that vector this disease. In Georgia, part of that management time is in the fall, about 30 days after emergence. At times, a fall application of an insecticide is beneficial in controlling aphids. It’s very important that you scout your fields.”

As for fall nitrogen applications, he says there’s no consistency in the yield data. “I’ve been able to match some of the same yields if I’m following wheat with soybeans as I can with cotton. But cotton is the most expensive crop to produce a wheat crop behind. Cotton is a luxury consumer of nitrogen — that’s why we have to use growth regulators. If I’m following cotton, I need about 35 to 40 pounds of nitrogen in the fall.

“Examine your nitrogen rates closely. Over-fertilizing with nitrogen may cause excessive growth and result in winter injury.”

During the later days of January, growers should 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 or stem elongation. This usually occurs during early to mid-February in the southern half of Georgia and Alabama. In extreme north Georgia or north Alabama, stem elongation may not occur until early March. If the tiller count is less than 80 per square foot, then apply 30 to 40 pound of nitrogen per acre to encourage tiller production prior to the onset of stem elongation.”

Lee encourages growers to scout for diseases and insects as the production season progresses, and to harvest as early as possible.

Stripe rust or yellow rust is one wheat disease that is problematic and ever increasing, says Lee. “It grows in rows, and this is the first rust you would see in the spring. Check early for this disease — close to the early boot stage. It can spread very quickly and cause significant problems if you wait too late.”

Timeliness is crucial during harvest, he says.

“Soft red winter wheat easily sprouts when the grain is exposed to rainy conditions after maturity. Harvest the crop as soon as possible to avoid field losses and to maintain good quality grain. Also, dry the grain if you’re harvesting above 15-percent moisture.”

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com