Rolling terrain, irrigation pushing wheat yields significantly higher

Chris Minton was already seeing some good yields when he began harvesting his 2016 winter wheat crop in early June. But what he and family and friends saw on the afternoon of June 10 may be the stuff records are made of.

Preparing any field for better-than-average yields requires planning and execution. Preparing a field for entry in a national yield competition such as that sponsored by the National Wheat Foundation this year takes a lot of planning, hard work, help from friends and luck.

“We’ve cut four fields so far, and all of them averaged at least 90 bushels per acre,” said Minton, who farms near Trimble in the hill country of west Tennessee. “One of those averaged 104 bushels per acre, which is good wheat for anybody. It’s been an ideal wheat year for this section of Tennessee.”

In keeping with the tradition surrounding most yield contests, Minton wasn’t talking about the yield in the 30-acre portion of a field he entered in the National Wheat Yield Contest, which the National Wheat Foundation is sponsoring in 2016 for the first time in 20 years. It’s safe to say it will be more than 104 bushels per acre.

“This is good wheat country,” said Minton, looking around at the terrain of the field he’s farming with his father, Mike, and grandfather, Robert. “These hillsides provide good drainage for the wheat, and the soils are well-suited for it. Of course, the downside is we have 28 catch basins in this field.”

The field containing the 30-acre block that was entered in the National Wheat Yield Contest can be sprinkler irrigated, which is a relatively new practice for the rolling hills portion of west Tennessee.

Putting nitrogen in the roots

Minton put on a total of .15 inch of water on the whole field as he applied 170 units of nitrogen to it during the growing season. The 30-acre block entered in the National Wheat Yield Contest received .3 inch of water and a total of 220 units of nitrogen spread out over six applications.

“We used extensive scouting and tissue sampling, and the crop was monitored constantly by Wes Rodgers (innovation specialist with BASF), who I’m fortunate to know and who has been a very influential part of this project,” Minton said. “The tissue sampling was done by Nicky Burgess with Winfield Solutions, who has also been an integral part of this, as well.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Minton. “We made three applications of fungicides on this plot and two on the rest of the field. The yields have been good so far. We’re looking at north of 100, and we’re not into the plot yet.”

Following the rules of the National Wheat Foundation contest, Minton harvested the rows around the 30-acre block first and transferred them to a grain cart. Then he harvested 1.5 acres of the block – as specified by the contest rules – and emptied that wheat into an empty grain truck and hauled the wheat to a nearby elevator. A University of Tennessee Extension specialist monitored the harvest procedure.

Minton irrigated the 30-acre plot twice (.15 of an inch each) to carry the nitrogen into the ground. “At that amount of volume you can actually get it into the roots of the wheat plant with that little amount of rainfall and liquid,” he said. (He divided the field into quadrants and told the pivot to go to a certain degree and stop to cover the contest block with more water and nutrient.)

Mild winter a blessing

The mild winter of 2015-16 was an “exceptional blessing” for the wheat crop. “We may hurt later from insects, but it was an exceptional blessing for this wheat. It tillered all winter. The other thing was most people in this area – I know we did – planted 20 days earlier than normal.

“If you’ll remember how hot it was last fall at the first of October, that’s when that wheat was sprouting out of the ground,” he noted. “It took off tillering like nothing I’d ever seen. I think that and the wet winter helped as well.”

Minton is hopeful yields like the ones he’s harvesting this year will help wheat make a comeback in the Mid-South. Wet falls prior to 2015 and low basis levels for wheat have cut into Mid-South wheat acres as a whole, and back-to-back years of adverse spring weather have decimated the Louisiana wheat crop in some areas.

“Everyone was a little scared there for a while that wheat might not be around,” said Minton. “I think that with the additional research and tests that private individuals are running that will be in this national wheat yield competition, I see yields drastically improving in a short time.’

He thinks he’s getting closer to producing 100-bushel-an-acre wheat on a consistent basis on his farm. “If we can make more on the same bit of land, I guess we’re doing something right.”

For more on the National Wheat Yield Contest, visit http://wheatfoundation.org/projects-programs/national-wheat-yield-contest/.

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