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Irrigated wheat needs intensive management to turn a profit

Wheat planted under irrigation isn’t necessarily the easiest crop to grow. Over the past six years, Gene Chohon of O’Neill has pushed wheat yields under center pivot to nearly 120 bushels per acre, but last season he was disappointed when his wheat averaged in the mid-80-bushel-per-acre range.

“The inputs are higher,” says Chohon. For instance, with this year’s crop, giving nitrogen credit for nitrates available in his irrigation water, he still applied fertilizer before seeding in September and again early this spring as the crop began to green up. He ran 30-0-0-3 through his center pivot at boot stage and applied fungicide twice. Chohon believes that wheat takes intense management to pay off, especially if it is planted on valuable irrigated cropland.

At a glance

• Gene Chohon has been planting irrigated wheat for six years.

• He says irrigated wheat is a high-management crop.

• It’s important to choose the right seed and plant on time.

For the past two years, Chohon has hosted University of Nebraska winter wheat yield trials. At an irrigated wheat meeting and tour that stopped by his farm this summer, Robert Klein, UNL Extension Western Nebraska crops specialist, discussed 32 varieties, noting that irrigated wheat has potential for producers willing to go the extra mile.

“We can make wheat a lot more profitable if we really manage it,” said Klein.

During the tour, Klein focused on selecting seed varieties that have good disease-resistance characteristics for the region. “Watch lodging,” he said. Under irrigation, lodging can be a problem, so he suggested choosing varieties with a low lodging score. In last season’s plot, several experimental varieties were over 90% lodged at harvesttime.

Spread the risk

Klein said farmers need to plant several varieties each year that are of different parent material as a way to spread the risk of disease, pest or lodging problems.

Farmers should always plant certified, treated seed, said Klein. “It pays even if you don’t have a disease problem, and it pays big time if there is a disease.” According to Klein, research shows increased yields of more than 2 bushels per acre simply by planting treated seed. He also suggested planting irrigated and late-planted wheat in narrow-row spacing of 7.5 inches or less.

Water use for wheat gradually increases after green-up, until early June, peaking at boot stage. Usually, irrigated winter wheat requires about 8.5 inches of water during the last month of growth.

According to Klein, nitrogen is not necessarily a limiting factor for wheat yields. Under irrigation when a producer might expect higher yields, Klein suggested adding only 20 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the normal rate, with a maximum of 150 pounds per acre.

For Chohon, wheat has been a good fit for some of his irrigated land, but he continues to manage inputs and watch for problems. He is watching the wheat market closely this season to see if it will pencil out for the upcoming year.

9 keys to get better wheat

UNL Extension Western Nebraska crops specialist Robert Klein recommends several considerations when planting wheat under irrigation.

• Plant as close to the recommended date as possible.

• Apply phosphorus in the row, instead of broadcasting, if planted after the recommended date.

• Plant in rows spaced 7.5 inches or less.

• Choose varieties with good disease resistance.

• Plant varieties that have good straw strength.

• Plant certified, treated seed.

• Plant several varieties, each with different parent material.

• Monitor soil water and irrigate according to the crop’s water-use rates.

• Select varieties with good milling and baking qualities.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.