Blog: The Wheat Sheaf
Winter Cereals – Should I try it? What’s important?
Winter Wheat: To plant, or not to plant that is the question.
Actually, if your field was designated to be a cereal crop this spring, but you never got it planted, then this is the perfect opportunity to put a winter cereal crop in this late August/early September.
There are several benefits to seeding a winter wheat crop. The biggest incentive for growing winter wheat is it can help evenly distribute labour during the year. For some small labour-force farms, having the planting and initial inputs occur in the fall instead of the hectic spring is a key decision making factor. Another benefit is winter wheat is generally more competitive in the spring against spring annual weeds. Thanks to this competiveness, producers can to potentially reduce their herbicide costs, or at the very least, start to lower weed-seed banks for more difficult weeds such as wild oat. Lastly, winter wheat allows producers to plant in wetter fields with more ease, especially in late August /early September. Also, a winter wheat crop can use this early spring moisture to increase yield when most spring wheat is not in the ground yet.
Due to a notable amount of unseeded acres in the province, many producers are giving serious thought to planting a winter cereal this coming fall and most of them are from less traditional winter wheat growing areas. For many it will be their first time seeding it. Here is a little refresher course, as now is the time to plan for your winter wheat crop.
So, the real question is: what are the differences between planting winter wheat to spring wheat besides planting date?
Good resources on this topic can be found including the "Winter Wheat Production Manual" from the Alberta Wheat Commission or the “Western Winter Wheat Grower Guide” from the Western Winter Wheat Initiative. However, for now, here are a few key differences:
- Yield losses can occur if planting a winter wheat outside the recommended planting times for your area of the province. Planting before August 20th is not a good idea anywhere in the province. In southern Alberta, due to potential transference issues of Stripe Rust and Wheat Streak Mosaic Virus (WSMV), producers are pushing back planting dates of winter wheat to late September to break this “green bridge”. In Central Alberta, consider seeding winter cereal crops in the last week of August or first week of September. For Alberta’s northern producers, the last week of August is preferable to a September date.
- Previous crop stubble of at least four inches in height is ideal to capture the snow to insulate the winter wheat crop; however, keep in mind, much of the unseeded acres have been already worked up. For areas north of Lacombe County, winter wheat would likely need to normally follow a field pea crop, unless after an annual silage crop. There are many newer early-maturing pea varieties available for future planning, but consider that pea residues do not provide much stubble. One will need to be willing to accept this added winter survival risk, if following a field pea crop or fully cultivated ground.
- Winter wheat has shorter coleoptiles, the first ground piercing shoot, compared to spring wheat. Combined with less time to emerge and set a good crop stand before winter, it is very important to seed winter wheat a half to one inch (1.5 to 2.5 cm) deep. However, the further north one plants, the more seed contact with good soil moisture trumps shallow depth, as long as not exceeding 1.25 inches in depth. Janine Paly of the Western Winter Wheat Initiative said, “Typically plants seeded too deep in the fall, have a harder time recovering in the spring”.
- The goal is to achieve three to four leaves, and preferably develop a crown before winter freeze-up. In addition, best results are with two to three small tillers per plant as an optimum way to go into the winter.
- Research has shown winter wheat has greater yield potential than spring wheat, and as such requires a little more fertility than spring wheat. Levels of 100-120 actual pounds of N/acre are needed for the best yield returns.
- Phosphorus (P) for a winter cereal crop is critical for solid root development prior to winter. Approximately 20 - 25 lb./ac of Phosphorus is usually adequate and placed with the seed.
- Placing the Nitrogen all at once “at plant” is possible if side-banded or deep-banded (30 lb. N/ac max for with the seed). Research indicates no significant yield difference between all the Nitrogen at plant vs a split application of Nitrogen provided the spring application portion in a split regime is done early enough.
- Another difference is the optimum seeding rate. The new suggested seeding rate for winter wheat is 350-400 viable seeds / m2 (approximately 34-38 viable seeds/ft2). Actual seeding rate should be based on the actual 1,000 kernel weight (TKW) of the seed and a known germination to meet this target. Good seed rate calculators can be found on the Alberta Government website, and many seed companies have one too.
One of the most influential decisions you can make is variety selection. A strong disease package, winter survival improvements, strong-straw characteristics for low-lodging capabilities are all important features to consider besides yield potential. Full variety descriptions and yield comparisons are available via Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta or in the latest Alberta Seed Guide.