Determining the Seeding Rate for Winter Wheat

Field of seedling wheat
Figure 1. A good stand of seedling wheat seeded into no-till fallow in west-central Nebraska. (Photo by Robert Klein)

Determining the Seeding Rate for Winter Wheat

REVISED: September 2, 2020 (originally published August 28, 2019)

If seeding rate for Winter Wheat is determined by lbs/acre, the number of seeds per acre could vary by as much as 13 times! Not a lucky number. If determined by the number of seeds per acre, it can vary by 4.2 times.

Nebraska growers use seeding rates for winter wheat that can vary from 30 to 180 lb per acre (300,000 to almost 4,000,000 seeds per acre = 13.3) if the lower rate is with a large seed and the higher rate is with a small seed. The lower rates are most common in drier areas. The higher rates are used for irrigated wheat, which often is seeded in narrower rows and later in the season, as it often follows another crop rather than fallow. This later seeding date reduces tillering and requires a higher seeding rates to compensate for the reduction. Higher yield potential requires higher seeding rates.

Winter Wheat Seed Size Varies

Historically, wheat growers calculated their seeding rate based on pounds of seed per acre; however, seed size varies; so it's recommended that growers calculate their seeding rate using seeds per acre rather than pounds to provide more accurate seeding results. The number of winter wheat seeds in one pound varies depending on the variety and the condition under which it was produced. In the 2020 Nebraska Winter Wheat Variety Evaluation trial at Harlan County, winter wheat yields ranged from a low of 37.8 to a high of 93.9 bushels per acre. Seed size ranged from a low of 14,000 seeds per pound to a high of 21,400 seeds per pound.

When weight is used for wheat seeding rates, a seed size difference of this magnitude can result in a 53% difference in seeding rate. Seed size was smaller in 2020 than in the good conditions for seed fill in 2019. In the 2019 Harlan County tests seed size varied from 9,900 to 13,000 seed per pound. Some years, seed size can vary by 100% or more.

Selecting a Seeding Rate

Table 1. Range of optimum seeding rates for areas of Nebraska. The highest seeding rate of 2,500,000 divided by lowest seeding rate 600,000 = 4.2
Panhandle 600,000 to 900,000 seeds/acre
Southwest 700,000 to 900,000 seeds/acre
Central 800,000 to 1,350,000 seeds/acre
Southeast 900,000 to 1,350,000 seeds/acre
Irrigated 1,000,000 to 2,500,000 seeds/acre
Table 2. Yield potential in bushels/acre of a seeding rate of 18 seeds per foot of row with 80% germination and emergence and seeded on the recommended seeding date for the area.
Row spacing (in.) Seeds/acre Estimated yield potential (bu/ac)
6 1,568,160 153
7.5 1,254,528 123
8 1,176,120 115
10 940,896 92
12 784,080 77
14 672,069 66

Winter wheat is capable of compensating among yield components, which often results in similar grain yields being produced across a fairly wide range of seeding rates. However, using seeding rates that are too low can lead to excessive tillering. It also may delay maturity, increase weed competition, and fail to make use of the plant's full yield potential. Using rates that are too high may increase costs, result in increased lodging, and possibly reduce yields.

Too much competition, even among small grain plants, may lead to fewer kernels per head and lower kernel weight. The key is to get an optimum plant population with uniform distribution for efficient use of available resources.

A review of seedling rates vs. yield potential is helpful. On average, there are 22 seeds per head and 5 heads per plant, or 110 seeds per plant. With an average seed size of 15,000 seeds per pound or 900,000 seeds per bushel, a pound of average-sized seed with 80% germination and emergence has a yield potential of approximately 1.5 bushels per acre. Seeding 40 lb of seed with a weight of 15,000 seed per pound has a yield potential of 60 bushels per acre.

Test Weight

Large, dense seeds are considered to be of better quality than low test weight seeds. Large seed tends to tiller more than small seeds; however, small dense kernels are better than large, light kernels. In the seed-cleaning process, a gravity table will remove the light seed. Another factor affecting seed quality is the protein content of the seed. The amount of protein in the seed, not the protein percentage, is very important to early seedling vigor. Large seed may have a lower protein percentage than small, shriveled seed, but because it is larger, it may have more total protein per seed.

Grain test weight often is used as a measure of seed quality, but test weight is a bulk density or a weight-per-volume measurement, and small seed that packs well can have a high test weight. If producers use test weight as a seed quality measurement, they should use a seed test weight above 57 lb per bushel. Actually, a high thousand kernel weight (TKW) is a better measurement of seed quality. A 30 gram (1.05 ounce) TKW, which translates to 15,200 seeds per pound, is an appropriate minimum TKW for a seedlot. A few varieties grown in Nebraska have small seed with a lower TKW, but their seed is still suitable for planting. With these varieties, producers should use the largest seed they can obtain.

Seed Cleaning and Germinability

Seed cleaning and sizing is essential to remove straw, chaff, dirt, stones, weed seeds, broken diseased, and small shriveled kernels. Generally, seed cleaning will add 1 to 2 lb to the seedlot's test weight by removing the small kernels. Taking a germination test is essential to determine the seed viability. After seed germinability has been determined, the seeding rate can be determined. Seed for planting should be above 85% germination.

Table 3. Seeding rate for winter wheat to achieve 18 seeds per foot of row.
Row spacing (inches) Feet of row/acre Wheat seeds/lb
10,000 11,000 12,000 13,000 14,000 15,000 16,000 17,000 18,000
6 87,120 157 143 131 120 112 105 98 92 87
7.5 69,696 125 114 105 97 90 84 78 74 70
8 65,340 118 107 98 90 84 78 76 69 65
10 52,272 94 86 78 72 67 63 59 55 52
12 43,560 78 71 65 60 56 52 49 46 44
14 37,337 67 61 56 52 48 45 42 39 37

Seeding Rate

How many winter wheat seeds should be planted per acre? There are several options. Floyd E. Bolton, crop scientist at Oregon State University, says 18 seeds per foot of row seems to be the point of diminishing yield increases, no matter the row spacing from 6 to 18 inches. This is for winter wheat seeded at an optimum planting date. Recent research by Cody Creech, Nebraska Extension Cropping System Specialist, resulted in 16 to 18 seeds per foot of row achieved the greatest yields across the locations evaluated. Winter wheat seeded late because of weather or following harvest of another crop may require a 30-60% increase in seeding rate.

For dryland winter wheat in western Nebraska, row spacings of 10 to 14 inches are recommended. Weed competition can be reduced by using narrower row spacing. For irrigation, and especially with late seeding dates, row spacing of 6 to 8 inches is preferred. Table 1 lists optimum seeding rates for Nebraska.

Table 2 shows the yield potential of winter wheat seeded on the recommended seeding date at 18 seeds per foot of row with 80% germination and emergence (stand establishment). Table 3 provides the pounds of seed needed per acre for 6- to 14-inch row spacings and seed sizes of 12,000 to 18,000 seeds per pound, based on 18 seeds per foot of row.

Calibrating the Seeder

With seeding rate determined, how can we be sure the seeder plants the desired amount? First, use the operator's manual to set the seeder. Then, use one of the several items available to help calibrate the seeder. For example, see NebGuide G2044, Calibration of Sprayers (Also Seeders), specifically Problem 10 which illustrates how to calibrate a seeder.