3 Keys to Early Success for Winter Wheat

Holly Thrasher

14 Oct 2019

While fall harvest marks the end of the season for many row crops, it is just the beginning for winter wheat. Winter wheat’s length of exposure in the field -- nine months, in many cases -- makes early-season establishment vital to a successful crop.

U.S. farmers generally grow one of two classes of winter wheat: hard red winter (HRW), which is grown from Texas to Montana; and soft red winter (SRW), which thrives in areas of higher humidity throughout the East and Southeast.

Regardless of which class you’re growing, here are three key considerations to promote early-season success for winter wheat: fertility, seed treatment and weed control.

Early-season fertility is important for proper stand establishment. 

Taking a representative soil sample will provide the best roadmap when considering specific fertility needs. Based on your soil test results, you can determine if nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) or liming applications are needed to support early-season fertility. 

Nitrogen Applications

Nitrogen is essential to getting your wheat crop off to a good start. Due to the length of the growing season, you may want to consider doing a split N application instead of applying 100 percent upfront to minimize the likelihood of nitrogen losses. Split applications also allow you to time nitrogen availability when the crop needs it the most (the highest N uptake is between tillering and flowering stage). 

Crop fertility needs are unique to your farm, but Kansas State University research suggests that Nitrogen rates of 20-30 lbs can aid proper stand establishment and tillering in winter wheat.1

Phosphorus Applications

There is a strong correlation between phosphorus levels and tillering in the fall. If your soil test results reveal low phosphorus levels, P applications -- either as starter phosphorus with the seed or band-applied close to the seed -- are important to consider as well.1 Phosphorus also aids in strong root development, which may in turn decrease winterkill.2

When determining application rates, consult your local extension publications in conjunction with your soil test results. 

Total N and P uptake in winter wheat is 1.9 lbs per bushel and .68 lbs per bushel, respectively.9


You may also contend with low or high soil pH levels, depending on your location. Phosphorus management is important with high soil pH (~7.5-8.5), as this can tie up P and limit its availability.3

If soil pH levels fall to the 5.5-6.5 range, you may want to prioritize liming in the future. Low soil pH can be a concern, particularly early in the season when root systems are mostly near the surface where lower pH levels tend to exist. 

Consult your soil test results to assess the risk of aluminum toxicity and whether or not pH adjustment is necessary. If you’re unable to apply lime prior to seeding, you can still manage either concern through variety selection or P application.1

Seed treatment can safeguard against common threats

The fungicide portion of a seed treatment can be effective in protecting against seed- and soil-borne diseases such as common bunt, loose smut, ergot and root and seedling diseases caused by Fusarium infection.6

In addition to disease protection, some seed treatments also contain insecticides -- including imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin -- that can help minimize the impact of pests such as wireworms and aphids.8

You can utilize the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s handy table of common wheat seed treatments to compare active ingredients and mode of action when choosing fungicidal seed treatment.7 And be sure to invest in a treatment that will best protect your crop against threatening diseases and insects specific to your region.

Read this next: Seed Treatment Basics: Do you know what’s being added to your seed?

Managing weeds will set the stage for a healthy crop

Starting with a weed-free seed bed is vital to a healthy winter wheat crop. Consider utilizing tillage practices or a burndown herbicide application to gain a clean seed bed prior to planting. 

By scouting early and often, you will be able to identify weed pressure and determine what herbicide program best fits your crop’s needs. Be on the lookout for winter annual broad leaves such as henbit, tansy mustard, field pennycress and shepherds-purse as well as winter annual grasses like downy brome, feral rye and jointed goatgrass.5

Fall is also the best time gain control of marestail. Sulfonylurea, dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides labeled for use in wheat are excellent options to consider for control of winter annuals.5

Gain more insight on your fields with precision mapping

Before making any pre- or in-season decisions, download our Precision Mapping Guide to learn how you can utilize precision maps to develop a more effective field-by-field strategy.


Additional Resources:

http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/id/id125/id125.pdf https://amarillo.tamu.edu/files/2017/08/Winter-Wheat-Management-Calendar.pdf http://wheat.okstate.edu/variety-testing/2018-19-wvt-results/201819CentralRegionSummaryYieldResults.pdf/wheat-management

Holly Thrasher

14 Oct 2019