For two years running, Georgia wheat growers have produced an average statewide yield of more than 50 bushels per acre, with last year's 53 bushels being a state record. Is it an anomaly, or does it reflect a new trend in Georgia wheat production?
“The higher yields tend to reflect the intensive management strategies of those growers who still are producing wheat,” says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia Extension small grains specialist. “The producers still growing wheat have been making a profit for years, and good weather conditions during the past two years also have helped with final yields.”
The upward trend in wheat yields doesn't mean that the problems that have plagued growers in previous years don't still exist, says Lee. “The problems are still there — we're just managing around those problems, either with new products or by changing our management strategies. Of course, we still could have one of those bad years where everything goes wrong, and our yields would decline accordingly,” he says.
With fewer wheat acres being grown in Georgia — 220,000 acres this year — the remaining producers are very successful, adds Lee. “They're following through with the various intensive management strategies that we've been teaching them for the past 10 to 12 years,” he says.
The rolling five-year average for wheat yields in Georgia has trended upward in the past decade, notes Lee. “In the past five years, our rolling average has been about 47.4 bushels per acre. In the previous five years, the rolling average was about 31 to 32 bushels per acre. We have good varieties, and these have been combined with good management on good land.”
The intensive management of wheat is nothing new in the upper Southeast, especially in Virginia, where farmers traditionally have grown more soybeans, corn and wheat than growers in the lower Southeast.
“Our farmers have grown more cotton and peanuts and less soybeans, corn and wheat. So, our wheat acreage has declined over the years, and our management focus has been less on wheat and more on cotton and peanuts.
“It's a ‘divided mind’ situation. A farmer allots so much time, management, skill and money to certain crops, and the growers who still are producing wheat are quite good at it and have been very productive. Many of these growers are making 70 to 80 bushels per acre. Some of the growers who are making lower yields are those who plant wheat as a cover crop, and then they decide it can be harvested.”
The recent increase in conservation tillage farming hasn't played a big role in the intensive management of wheat in Georgia, says Lee.
Not well adapted
“Wheat does not perform as well when it's planted no-till in light, loamy sand soils as it does when it's planted behind some type of deep tillage. In Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, where there's likely to be a higher percentage of no-till crops, you'll find more wheat planted no-till. You won't find as much no-till in Georgia, Alabama, Florida or South Carolina.”
Many factors go into the intensive management of wheat, says Lee. “In our growing conditions, we're talking about some form of deep tillage and planting in a very timely manner during a recommended planting period.
“It's also important to utilize a seeding rate that insures an appropriate number of stems per square feet. This means planting by seeds per row foot rather than by bushels per acre, simply because seed vary in their number per pound.”
Intensive management also involves scouting for aphids and splitting nitrogen applications. “We prefer to split nitrogen applications in late winter to early spring to increase tiller numbers and to reflect upon a selected number of tiller requirements for high yields. Growers also are applying 20 to 40 pounds more of nitrogen than they were applying 10 years ago.
“It's also important to scout for diseases and to apply fungicides whenever necessary. In addition, we want to control weeds, especially ryegrass and wild radish. Intensive management is a matter of timely management for each of these components.”
Many Georgia growers also are irrigating wheat, adds Lee. “Some growers who plan to double-crop cotton or soybeans will plant wheat under irrigation. These growers will water wheat because in extremely dry years, wheat will respond to irrigation.”
Intensive management also means carefully selecting varieties for specific field situations, he says. Lee doesn't believe transgenic varieties will have much of an impact on Southeastern wheat production.
“One of the major debates on-going in the wheat industry is whether or not transgenic wheat poses a threat or an advantage. At this point in time, there's no advantage to transgenic wheat in the Southeast.
“Public breeding programs in soft red winter wheat play a major role in providing new varieties for Southern growers. Good varieties are coming out of these programs, offering Hessian fly resistance, and resistance to powdery mildew, leaf rust, septoria bloom and leaf blotch and other disease that cause problems for our farmers.”
Looking ahead to this fall's wheat crop, Lee says any acreage increases in Georgia probably will depend on the language of the new farm bill. The farm bill proposed by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee sets the target price for wheat at $4 per bushel.
“Some farmers, particularly in the southern part of the state, can grow wheat under center pivots, double-crop with cotton, and grow both crops very profitably.
“If we do see a target price of $4 per bushel in the farm bill, many growers will be driven towards planting wheat, and we'll have a lot more acres in Georgia. Many of those farms that have had wheat bases will fully plant those bases.”