How to Plant Wheat for Higher Yields

Erick Larson, State Extension Specialist - Grain Crops
By Erick Larson, State Extension Specialist - Grain Crops October 3, 2011 15:59 Updated

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Early-planted wheat is prone to disappointment, due to many issues which you may not be able to control, including freeze injury. All it needs is to successfully emerge and begin tillering in the fall.

Planting wheat early is very tempting, but can limit wheat grain productivity more than any other factor.  In fact, our record wheat yields this year were likely promoted by dry conditions which delayed planting till early November last fall.  Records from the Kentucky Wheat Production Contest (where winners typically produce more than 100 bushels per acre) justify the significance of timely planting, as top yielding plots rarely result from plantings prior to the recommended dates.  Planting wheat early needlessly exposes it to developmental, fertility, weed and numerous pest problems which ultimately limit yield potential.  Our mild southern winters further intensify this issue, because the onset and degree of wheat dormancy may vary considerably from year to year.  Thus, the developmental advantages gained from planting summer crops early, such as corn and soybeans, do not apply to winter wheat.  The adverse effects from excessive fall growth include spring freeze injury, development of Barley yellow dwarf virus, Hessian fly and armyworm infestation, more disease infection, more weed competition, poor nutrient use, and increased lodging.   Growers in both north and south Mississippi have experienced severe freeze injury during recent seasons and ensuing yield loss generally increases drastically with early-maturing wheat. Thus, we need to carefully manage variety maturity and planting date, as both these factors affect wheat maturity.  Early-maturing varieties should be planted later than normal, to avoid excessive development, which could expose them to substantial freeze damage in the spring.  Conversely, late-maturing wheat varieties should be planted before early varieties. We should also plant multiple varieties differing in maturity, to spread risk, since seasonal temperatures also influence maturity.

Our suggested wheat planting dates (within 10-14 days of the average first fall freeze date) should provide warm enough temperatures and long enough days for seedling emergence and tillering to begin before dormancy occurs.  This can vary considerably depending upon seasonal temperatures, but normally corresponds to:

North & Central Mississippi:             October 15 to November 10

Delta Region:                                     October 20 to November 15

South Mississippi:                              November 1 to November 25

Coastal Region:                                  November 15 to December 10

Planting wheat with a grain drill may improve profitability by enhancing stand establishment and minimizing seed expense.

Although wheat may be successfully established using various rudimentary broadcast planting methods, I generally recommend planting your grain crop with a drill, in order to optimize stand establishment, vigor and seedling survival.  By planting wheat with a grain drill using sound management techniques, you can use more conservative wheat seeding rates without reducing productivity.  While it is important to strive for specific planting standards, wheat does have outstanding capability to compensate for wide variation of plant density.  Our normal planting recommendation is to strive to establish 1.0 to 1.3 million wheat plants/acre or 23 to 30 plants/ft.2.  Wheat seed size can range from 11,000 to 18,000 seeds per pound (should be noted on the tag), so base your seeding rate on the number of seeds (seeds per pound), rather than on the volume or weight of the seeds (bushels per acre).  Using these strategies may reduce your seeding rate by more than 50% and/or allow you to plant superior varieties on twice as many acres.  Only a few situations justify drilling higher seeding rates than normal (10-20%), including no-tillage or extremely late plantings, for adequate stand establishment.

Some have asked about broadcast-planting on raised beds (primarily to facilitate irrigation of the subsequent double-crop), and this method can be productive, depending primarily upon adequate soil-water drainage.  However, the appropriate seeding rate for broadcasting and incorporating seed is considerably higher (40-45 seeds/ft.2), because emergence success will likely be modest (60-70% of planted seed).   Growers broadcasting small grain seed on the soil surface should generally utilize very high seeding rates (50-60 seeds/ft2), because emergence and seedling survival can be relatively low (around 50% of planted seed). For more information, please refer to Publication 2401 “Planting Methods and Seeding Rates for Small Grain Crops.”

It is essential to kill weeds before planting wheat.  A burndown herbicide applied prior to planting and/or before crop emergence is necessary to eliminate weed competition during emergence and early tillering stages, particularly in a no-tillage system.  Tillage may also serve the same purpose in conventionally prepared seedbeds.  In fact, tillage may be the most practical option to control volunteer Roundup Ready corn prior to planting wheat.  Maintaining a weed-free environment during planting and stand establishment is essential because weeds are very competitive with young wheat plants, particularly if they emerge before or at a similar time as the wheat crop.

Likewise, don’t fall into the assumption that weed control in wheat is easy and can wait till springtime. I believe this is where we often leave a lot of wheat yield potential on the table.  Abundant populations of quick-starting weeds, including henbit and annual bluegrass, may intensely compete with wheat for over 100 days, if left unimpeded until the spring.  Of course, ryegrass remains a foremost problem.  I encourage you to use fall-applied herbicides to control these weeds during the fall, if they are thick, because competition will rob valuable nutrients and reduce wheat tillering.  Thus, fewer wheat heads will be produced next spring. Fall weed control is particularly important, if you are not blessed with an optimal stand.  There are a few herbicide options labeled for either pre-plant, preemergence or early postemergence use on wheat, so if you would like some assistance with these, we would be happy to help.  2,4-D should not be applied early postemergence to wheat in the fall, because wheat is intolerant during seedling and early tillering stages.

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Erick Larson, State Extension Specialist - Grain Crops
By Erick Larson, State Extension Specialist - Grain Crops October 3, 2011 15:59 Updated
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  1. Barry Turner October 5, 05:12

    We have been using Finess at .5oz/ac with Round-up as our main weed control in wheat. We make this application 2-5 days post planting. We have noticed over the last couple of years that we are having more weeds at harvest than we used to. Weeds such as Sow Thistle and Rye Grass have become more of a problem. Can you suggest additional herbicides and/or timing of application to help?

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    • Tom Eubank October 17, 14:29

      I would suggest paraquat at or near planting to control emerging Italian ryegrass. I would follow that with either Axiom or metribuzin (see label for rates) to provide prememergence control of ryegrass. I would then recommend Axial XL for any escapes you may see later in the season. Be sure you apply to smaller ryegrass (1-2 tiller) or control may be reduced.
      Hope this helps.

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    • Erick Larson, Extension Grain Specialist Author October 17, 19:24

      Dear Barry, we have some increasing populations of both ALS and glyphosate ryegrass which could make control more difficult. The herbicides Tom suggested offer alternative modes of action to address these issues. We also have an exceptionally long growing season and diverse weed species in wheat. Thus, regardless of using a fall residual, you likely may need a spring postemergence herbicide to kill ryegrass that emerges late and will be competitive with wheat. Axial XL is a great choice for this use.

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  2. Jimmy Clements October 5, 09:49

    Great Eric;

    I agree with all your article states.
    But we add preplant N to help tillering also.

    Jimmy Clements

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    • Erick Larson, Extension Grain Specialist Author October 5, 15:49

      Thanks Jimmy,

      I agree about stimulating tillering and its importance to wheat yields. There are instances we certainly expect to see a response to fall-applied N, such as when planting into sod (like when planting in renovated pasture), late plantings, or when you have a thin stand, etc…. We can also scout fields after emergence to assess wheat development, plant health and nutrient availability. Sometimes there is plenty of residual N from the preceding summer crop and of course, soybeans, or other legumes. Wheat is very responsive to broadcast N fertilizer throughout the fall and winter, and in most areas of MS we can readily apply it by air, so application timing is not limited.

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