Growing 140-bushel wheat
by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Want to grow more wheat per acre? So did Dwight Bartle, a wheat producer in Brown City, MI. He achieved 140-bushel wheat and presented his findings at the Soybean & Small Grains Congress hosted by Cornell University Extension Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team earlier this year.
An ex-dairyman, Bartle now grows field crops with his wife, Nancy. Ruefully, Bartle admitted that Nancy beat him by seven bushels in the National Wheat Contest, with Nancy at 147.32 bushels with Irrer Seed ISF 727 and Dwight at 140.5 with Diehl Seeds DF 112.
The farm transitioned out of dairy 10 years ago and now grows a four-crop rotation of wheat, corn, sugar beets and soybeans. The rotation helps the farm keep the soil balanced. The Bartles also follow the advice of their soil consultant.
“If getting high yields was more nitrogen, we would’ve figured that out a long time ago,” Dwight said. “We’ll see a 30-bushel yield fluctuation across these fields. Why? We fertilize the same. It isn’t just nutrition. It’s not what that strip yielded; it’s what the field yielded. We can gain yield by taking variables out of that. We have got to get the wheat planed in the fall.”
He added that good wheat yield is not just about accumulating heat units, since their wheat was not planted under ideal circumstances. But since wheat, like other crops, must go in before it’s too late, producers have to make do with the weather they have sometimes instead of waiting.
“Will it get phenomenal yields? Maybe not,” he said. “I’d just as soon plant a little too deep than not deep enough if I’m going to err.”
Oct. 1 is his target date, but a week earlier is nice too. Usually, he and Nancy are busy harvesting their soybeans at that time, so if they have to push out their wheat planting until the following week, they still go for it, as they are still within the window of when they need to plant. The Bartles plant 1.8 million seeds per acre.
“We tried less population,” he said. “I need a good, healthy head count. If I’ve got too many, I can deal with that easier than not enough. This last year, I still don’t think I had a high enough head count. We put on 1,000 to 1,200 chicken manure pallets to feed the soil. We might get a little kick out of the organic nitrogen late in the wheat development.”
As a former dairy farmer, he hates to buy chicken manure, but needs to improve soil health. He forks the fields in autumn to break up the hardpan from the combine and sprayer. By working the soil less, he lightens the stress on the soil. It also prevents the fields from becoming too wet.
He might not have winter kill but he feels sure he is going to lose yield on it under those circumstances.
“Being a fall crop, it’s more water sensitive,” he said. “We have a land leveler. We try to clean up some of those spots.” Most of his land is also tile trained but he still has to watch for excess moisture.
Dwight uses copper treatments and a little fungicide to improve the health of his crop and minimize losses to disease. “We go in with urea when the wheat comes into the elongation stage,” he said. “We think we may eliminate some of those immature tillers.”
He added that the farm experienced little problems with lodging. “We of course are protecting the flag leaf and blossom with fungicide,” Dwight said. “We tried a biological on the flag leaf and had good luck with it.”
The farm’s low disease pressure helped the fungicide, but he said that next season, he will likely need to apply it again.
“We had good, clean wheat because of it,” he said. “To get high yields, it’s got to be sustainable, feasible and practical. It’s no good pushing these high yields if the wheat is high with lodging or the wheat is green. The combining is miserable. We need a system to do all our acres with, not just a few test strips. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
He and Nancy test different varieties frequently to see which give the best results. He advised farmers to not aim too high too soon.
“If guys are getting 90 bushels of wheat, don’t try for 140,” he said. “Try to get 110 bushels. Try to average that 110, then move yourself up. Experiment with varieties and different techniques. I’d just as soon lose 20 bushels and be able to combine than have a disaster in front of me. I grow too many acres to have that happen.”
He believes that many wheat farmers push only nitrogen to increase their yields; however, to get to the next level, better management is necessary.
“We try to put all our nitrogen on right at the end of the vegetation stage and before elongation,” Dwight said. “We work with the dry form. We tried putting on later, scared to death I’d hurt the flag leaf. We basically use a mid-130 range of nitrogen. Our sulfur, we put on about 45 to 48 pounds. We’ve done some leaf tissue samples. Maybe we can back off the sulfur a little and increase the nitrogen.”
He believes that the chicken manure should be warm to activate its release of nitrogen. “When it warms up, that’s when that organic nitrogen is going to become available,” Dwight said. “I’m not looking at nitrogen to be available at green-up. Nitrogen is important but I guess I almost starve my wheat a little bit early on … I think I can keep that wheat standing. If I’m going to push it another 30 bushels, we’re looking at another product to help that wheat standing. I’m afraid if I put nitrogen on early, I’m going to have a lodging issue.”