The Early Bird gets the Worm

The Early Bird gets the Worm

Wiarton Willie forecasted an early spring, are you ready?

For a large portion of the province, the likelihood of having an early start to spring is quite possible. There is very little ice cover on the Great Lakes, the frost layer is not very deep and snow that remains on the fields will likely disappear fast when looking at the long range forecast. This year especially, it is going to be imperative the equipment is ready to hit the fields when the time comes. For a majority of the province the winter wheat got planted in decent time in “good conditions” for the most part. To make the most of the 2020 wheat crop, getting the “kickstart” application of nitrogen on in a timely fashion will be key to optimizing the yield potential. The fields that are going to benefit the most from a kickstart shot of N will be those planted mid-late October with minimal tillering last fall.

Last year in particular, we saw many fields go backwards because the decision to apply nitrogen was delayed because growers were unsure whether to keep the crop or not. However, those who applied a small amount (30-40lbs of N) saw a big benefit. The small plants made up for lack of growth through aggressive spring tillering. Feeding the young plants bought some time and allowed growers to make a more informed decision when the time came to keep it or terminate it. However, this did not work in every scenario, some growers still ended up terminating their stand because there was just not enough viable plants to be profitable. Most of the time these fields with a small amount of N previously applied were transitioned to corn or edible beans.  

Don’t get burned; those who delayed applications because of uncertainty of the crops potential ended up paying for it by going past the point of no return. Everyone knows what 2019 was like (we don’t need to go there) but the applications that were delayed were really challenging to get done once the time came. The heavy clay soils would not allow equipment to carry due to severe saturation. Growers wanted to apply N on these fields but couldn’t. Some resorted to using helicopters to fly N on and others continued to wait. Those who continued to wait experienced the crop starting to go backwards, leaving bushels on the table. The Wheat Team received many calls on how to limit burn from late applications of nitrogen. In these scenarios there had been no nitrogen applied and the flag was starting to emerge. Our data suggests that a minimum of 5bu/ac loss can be expected due to burn injury when using UAN late in the season with flag leaves emerged. If we get into a scenario like this again next year we strongly advise that growers use a dry form of N that can be spread evenly in crop with minimal crop damage.

Flag Leaf burn from late UAN application

For the past three years, C&M Seeds has been working with Black Creek Research to better understand the relationship between various approaches to fertility management and resulting yield and protein in Hard Red winter wheat. Our data strongly supports as much as a 15bu/ac increase in yield and 2% increase in protein from using dry granular N as a second application strategy at the flag leaf stage.

The Wheat Team strongly supports split applications of N in both soft red and hard red winter wheat. Splitting allows for greater utilization of nitrogen because rates can be tailored to the crops demand at critical points through its growth stages. In an “all upfront” approach, the nitrogen dollars have been spent and most of the time growers will not want to invest more nitrogen dollars to come back in if the crop is lacking N later in the growing season. Split applying offers greater flexibility; rates can be easily increased or decreased to meet the crops demand without having to spend any extra money. In a nice lush, early planted field of wheat a small dose can be put on upfront and the remainder applied at GS 32, 40/60 split. In late planted wheat with low tiller counts, more N can be put on upfront with the balance at GS 32, 60/40 split. Splitting accomplishes the 4R principals of nutrient management by applying the Right Rate, at the Right Time, with the Right Source in the Right Place.

We all know every year is different and there is not always a tremendous response from splits over “all upfront”. However, what we have seen year after year is that split applying N will be no worse than “all upfront” from an economic standpoint. Often, we see a nice yield advantage. Split applied N is worth considering.

Something we continually see every spring is damage to young wheat plants from heavy equipment going across the fields. If you have seen the data from the CompactionSmart you will understand that axle loads on a lot of modern agriculture equipment are increasing as well as the subsequent compaction to the soil. It may not seem like it at the time, but young wheat plants do not like compaction. Even in relatively dry conditions, we have seen lasting affects from the tire tracks throughout the growing season. It is more evident when wheel traffic from fertilizer equipment does not match up with sprayer tracks. In the case where fertilizer equipment went across the field early and in “reasonable” soil conditions followed by separate sprayer tracks, we have experienced up to 50% yield loss and a 1-2 day delay in heading directly in the tire track of the fertilizer equipment. We understand that every operation is different and a lot of time this is difficult to mitigate but just know the more wheel traffic across the field that does not match more chances bushels are being left on the table.

Kinked stems and reduced height from wheel traffic

About the Author

Alex Zelem is a CCA-ON certified Agronomist with C&M Seeds. He farms in Huron County. Alex attended Ridgetown College and when he graduated attended Olds College in Alberta to gain a different perspective from Ontario. He has been working in agriculture since 2013.