Managing Poor Wheat Stands in the Nebraska Panhandle

Managing Poor Wheat Stands in the Nebraska Panhandle

This field east of Hemingford is typical of the dilemma facing producers in the Panhandle.
This field east of Hemingford is typical of the dilemma facing producers in the northern Panhandle. Late operations to possibly remove winter annuals is evident and may have reduced overall moisture to the point of limiting final stands. Lack of fall moisture and/or dry windy conditions until mid-December prevented wheat from filling in and sustaining stands. (Photos by Bill Booker)
Spotty wheat stands
Spotty wheat stands are not uncommon in dryland wheat fields in the northwest Panhandle. The National Drought Mitigation Center this week rated this area with severe to extreme drought conditions.
Inconsistant wheat emergence
Inconsistent wheat emergence can be traced to previous field operations and marginal conditions at seeding. Some wheat was seeded into dry soil that never received enough moisture to sustain the crop through winter. These marginal conditions can emphasize inconsistencies in seeding depth. Differences from row to row can result from different row settings, such as down pressure springs, or wear on seeding equipment. Conditions this spring have done little to help. Moisture since the first of the year has been less than 50% of normal.

 April 25, 2008

Winter wheat stands in some northern Panhandle fields are quite spotty as a result of dry conditions last fall. Winter and early spring moisture does not seem to be resulting in new plant emergence, which suggests that the plants may have germinated last fall or winter and then died. A few of these fields have had severe loss due to wind erosion.

For most of these fields, tearing them up and planting something else is not a viable option because of the dry soil conditions and current grain prices. In most cases, yield loss for the affected field is not likely to be great enough to trigger crop insurance. So what is a grower to do? Doing nothing may result in soil erosion problems or weed development that can complicate harvest.

Management Options

We do not recommend buying spring wheat seed and using it to fill in the gaps. Spring wheat seed is in short supply and expensive even if you can find it. Also, if spring wheat grain is mixed with winter wheat grain, it is considered a mixed class and will be severely docked at the elevator. We think it's better to seed winter wheat into large gaps to provide some cover to minimize soil erosion and provide some competition with later emerging weeds. This late-seeded wheat will not be competitive with wheat that emerged last fall. Winter wheat now will not be vernalized and will not produce a head until very late in the summer, long after wheat harvest. After harvest this wheat should be killed with tillage or herbicides to prevent the spread of wheat streak mosaic.

To prevent weeds from becoming a major issue in areas without much established wheat, consider applying an herbicide with a long soil residual this spring. Herbicides such as Ally, Amber, Finesse, or Peak will control many yet-to-emerge weeds for several weeks after application and may prevent the need of harvest aid treatments. Be sure to check the label for rotation restrictions if you are not in a winter wheat-fallow rotation.

By seeding winter wheat now for ground cover and using residual herbicides to prevent weeds from getting out of control, these fields can be managed to produce as much wheat as their limited stands will allow.

Fields determined to have a major yield loss as a result of poor stands should be seeded to a cover-producing crop as soon as possible. Be sure to check with your crop insurance agent before destroying any wheat fields.

Drew Lyon
Extension Dryland Crops Specialist
Bill Booker
Extension Educator, Box Butte County