By Cory Jacob
Regional crops specialist, Watrous
Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture
It can be tough to think about next year’s crop before this one is in the bin, but winter wheat is well worth growing. It spreads out the spring and fall workloads, though planting winter wheat is likely to overlap with harvest. Planning and organization will help to do both operations at the same time. Growing winter wheat also uses up early season moisture and is competitive with winter annual or other early emerging weeds. The early maturity of winter wheat means that it is often past the susceptible stages for some pests including wheat midge and fusarium head blight.
Winter wheat is best planted into canola stubble, which due to its height catches snow which insulates the crop during the winter. Canola stubble also offers the lowest risk of disease, weeds, and insects as compared to seeding into cereal crop stubble. Pea stubble is also suitable as long as some canola or cereal stubble is present from past years. Seeding dates are based on location within the province and range from late August to mid-September. Seeding should occur within seven to 10 days of the optimum seeding dates which include: August 27 in the Meadow Lake/Prince Albert/Nipawin areas; August 30 in the North Battleford/Saskatoon/Wynyard/Yorkton areas; September 3 in the Kindersley/Swift Cur-rent areas; and September 6 in the Maple Creek/Estevan areas.
Due to some winter mortality, target plant populations should be between 25 to 30 plants per square foot to achieve a crop stand of 18-24 plants per square foot. Winter wheat has a very short coleoptile, which is an extension of the seed embryo that pushes its way through the soil surface, from which the first leaf develops. Winter wheat must be seeded 0.5 to one inch deep, similar to canola seeding depths. If seeded too deep, the winter wheat may not be able to push through the soil.
The optimal over-wintering plant stage is three to four leaves with one tiller. Seeding too early or too late can produce plants that maybe too large or small and will reduce winter hardiness and overall survival, which will impact yield. A minimum of about 3.5 inches of unpacked snow cover is needed to keep the crown below critical temperatures to ensure survival.
Proper and effective fall weed control to manage winter annual and perennial weeds will also provide a competitive advantage to the crop in the spring. As winter wheat is emerged before the snow melts, it should be at a competitive advantage against emerging summer annual weeds. The larger winter wheat plants are able to establish a large root mass and tap into moisture and nutrient uptake. As well, these larger plants are taller and have a larger leaf area, which mean more plant material to intercept sunlight for photosynthesis. This means that coupled with proper and effective fall weed control, winter wheat will suffer minimal yield loss due to weed competition.
Growing winter wheat may also help to throw weeds off balance as they adapt to our farming practices. Annual weeds will adapt in fields where annual crops are grown (wild oats in wheat), winter annual weeds will adapt in fields grown to winter cereals (cleavers in winter wheat), perennial weeds increase in fields where perennial crops are grown (dandelions in alfalfa). The fall seeding date and early harvest of winter wheat will help to control annual weeds in crop rotations.
With proper care, some luck, and co-operation from Mother Nature, winter wheat can produce well, be profit-able, spread out spring and fall workloads and may help to keep weeds off balance.