Wheat acreage is up across the upper Southeast, prices remain good and the future looks even better, based on continued yield increases in statewide variety tests.

Virginia Tech Small Grains Specialist Wade Thomason says the average yield of wheat varieties in statewide testing over the past eight years has gone up an average of 2.8 bushels per acre per year.

“Basically, we haven’t changed the way we manage these test plots since 1999, so most of the increase is due to genetic improvement. Even more surprisingly is an annual increase of nearly a pound of test weight over the past eight years,” Thomason says.

The aggressive small grains breeding program being headed by Carl Griffey is already showing benefits for Virginia growers and as yields and test weights of these new varieties continue to push yields and test weights up in our tests, it gives our growers a better opportunity to improve their yields—just by taking advantage of these improved varieties, according to Thomason.

Thomason says wheat variety tests at the Eastern Virginia Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Warsaw, Va. are indicative of statewide testing. At the Warsaw facility, the top 10 wheat varieties over the past three years have averaged 90 bushels or better per year. Considering the 2006-2007 season was plagued by one of the century’s worst droughts, such high yields are amazing.

Several of the top yielding breeding lines in the program have been released to the public, or will be soon. Of these varieties, VA03W-409, which is due for release this year has consistently been a top producer.

Other top five varieties include: Pioneer 26R58, VA01-205. Southern States 15557 and USG 3555. Thomason points out these varieties have done well at all test sites. He notes that VA01-205 is also set for release in the near future.

“These varieties performed well, regardless of whether they were grown using conventional-tillage or no-till. Growers should be optimistic that included among these top varieties are early, mid and late-maturing lines,” Thomason says.

Most of these varieties are average or below average in early spring height. Over the past few years daylight sensitive varieties have done real well, especially under no-till conditions, in statewide tests, Thomason points out.

The Virginia Tech Specialist says as growers go more and more to no-till systems there are some things they can do to insure yields comparable to conventional-tillage.

First, he says, is to aggressively control pre-plant weeds, especially to be sure to get burndown herbicides out in plenty of time to take out ryegrass and other troublesome weeds and grasses.

The second critical issue for no-till wheat, he contends, is to get a good seedbed. Other than burying residue, the main reason for tilling ground is to make a good, uniform seedbed.

“We are not using the time for tillage, but a good tradeoff in no-till systems is to use that time to check planters and seed depth and performance frequently. Instead of building a seedbed, growers need to use that time to adjust equipment to manage the seedbed they have in no-till systems.

Getting a good seedbed in no-till systems is critical to getting a good stand of wheat. Thomason says 90-95 percent stand is ideal for yield. He notes that going below 85 percent is as low as you want to go before giving up yield potential. If the stand drops to 65 percent, a 7-8 bushel per acre yield loss is likely.

Some other tips Thomason suggests for no-till wheat success include:

• Maintain as much residue as possible on the soil surface.

• Set combine straw spreaders or choppers to evenly distribute previous crop residue.

• Choose a cultivar with high yield potential, strong seedling vigor, and medium to late heading date and resistance to fusarium head blight.

• Increase seeding rates 10 percent over conventional rates when planting into heavy residue.

• Plant no-till acres first, or 4-5 days prior to the optimum planting date for conventional planting.

• Scout fields in late fall and apply nitrogen if tiller density is below optimum.

Thomason stresses that timely harvest of wheat can save growers both yield and test weight. Every time mature wheat is rained on, most wheat varieties will lose a pound of test weight.

New varieties and more intensive no-till management strategies, will be critical for wheat growers in the upper Southeast in the coming years, if production continues to rise.

Virginia production in 2008 is forecast to be up by three million bushels from the 13 million bushels produced in 2007.

In 2008, wheat production is projected to rise dramatically over the region. South Carolina producers planted more wheat in 2008. Harvested acres are forecast to be 170,000 acres this year, up from 135,000 acres in 2007.

In North Carolina wheat production is expected to top 35 million bushels, up from 20 million bushels in 2007.

In addition to acreage increases, wheat yields in all three states are expected to be up in 2008.

Despite yield increases in the region, average production still hovers around 50 bushels per acre. As tests at Virginia Tech point out, the potential for much higher yields is not only possible, but probable as more new and improved varieties get to growers and as growers learn better management practices for no-till wheat.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com