Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Topdressing Wheat

Bad photo of the wheat (ignore that planting skip in the middle of the photo)
Better photo of the wheat (it's actually greener than it looks and try to ignore that bare spot)
Nothing really interesting has been happening around the farm lately (I've just been fighting the flu and feeding hay), except that I've spent the last couple of days topdressing the wheat.  It's been relatively warm for a few days (high 70's), it's supposed to rain this weekend, and the wheat is still dormant, so it should be almost perfect conditions to spray some fertilizer.

Winter wheat usually has the fertilizer applied both at planting and then it's topdressed in late winter before it starts to come out of dormancy.  Depending on who you talk to, about a third of the required nitrogen should be applied at planting and then the wheat is topdressed with the rest of the nitrogen some time around January or February, or half the nitrogen is applied at planting and half is applied at topdressing. 

I usually apply half at planting and then the other half when I topdress.  It's supposed to take approximately 2 lb. of N per bushel of wheat (within reason), so I shoot for a reasonable yield and then apply that much nitrogen but usually don't include the amount of nitrogen in my soil tests in those calculations. 

For what little rain we've gotten this winter (somewhere around 3 inches?) and how cold it's gotten at times (16 degrees more than once), the wheat doesn't look too bad, is weed-free so far, and might actually make a pretty decent crop.  Now that I've got everything fertilized, I'm itching to see the wheat come out of dormancy and start growing this spring, and about four months from now, I'll be able to tell what sort of wheat crop I actually have. 


  1. My dad would say, "As long as the bare spots aren't along the road where someone else can see them!"

    It's been so long since we raised any wheat up here I can't remember my dad or grandfather ever fertilizing it but I expect they did during planting. I doubt they ever did in January or February up here because it would all just evaporate or blow off the frozen ground. That might explain why the yields never amounted to much.

    1. That bare spot is an area of poor drainage and it's also slightly alkaline (I think), I've been slowly fixing it for years and think I'll finally be able to get rid of it this summer. Since I switched to no-till, most of my drainage problems (wet spots which lead to bare spots, etc.) have been more or less fixed due to more residue, less compaction, and the organic matter levels starting to get higher.

      There's a lot more to growing a high-yielding wheat crop than I could cover on this post or even the entire blog, but greatly simplified, the way I've always understood it is that in the fall the wheat plant is establishing it's root system and growing the tillers that will eventually produce a grain head.

      Too much nitrogen at planting can produce too many tillers which theoretically means more heads but it also means that those heads might have trouble filling in the summer. Not enough nitrogen at planting means there might not be enough tillers going into dormancy and if there aren't a certain number of tillers then there won't be very much wheat to harvest.

      So, it's a balancing act to manage the tillers going into dormancy and then providing enough nitrogen at topdressing keep surviving tillers alive and to fill all the heads when it starts growing in the spring. Along with all that, you have to figure in the cost of nitrogen, what wheat is hopefully going to be selling for, and the long-term fertility of the field (shorting the application of nitrogen today might still show up in the field a couple of years down the road).

      If the ground is frozen or soaking wet, it makes it even more of a balancing act because you have to factor in the chance of rutting the field all up or losing the nitrogen because it just won't soak into frozen ground.

    2. Very interesting and yet more proof that farmers aren't just people who work from the neck down!

    3. If you kept track, I bet you'd find that more than I care to admit, I end up 'working hard instead of working smart', once in a while I over-think everything until I end up not doing anything, and sometimes I carefully think through a problem before doing the right thing.

      I'd like to think that I'm slowly starting to "work smart instead of working hard" more often than not. Life tends to be less aggravating when I "work smart" instead of either doing nothing or "working hard".

  2. We all suffered through the flu in the weeks before Christmas which was fine for me. Gave me an excuse to miss out on all the hoopla before the holidays. It was the first time I've had the flu in probably 20+ years thanks to regular flu shots. I got one last fall too but evidently they really missed the mark.

    1. It seemed like the flu hit right around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so almost everyone in the extended family got sick even the people that had the flu shot.

      I was miserable for about a week with a horrible cough, body aches (every old injury I had from broken bones to sprains to pulled muscles hurt), chills (I didn't feel warm for couple of days), and I was so tired I actually took naps during the day (a rare event in my life).

      It didn't help that I'd wake up in the morning feeling better, I'd go feed the cattle, and than I'd start to feel sick once again.

    2. That pretty much described my symptoms to a T. I've heard several people who never got the flu shot had more of the nausea to go with it. So I'm glad the flu shot eliminated that portion of the goodness we received.

  3. "Nothing really interesting has been happening around the farm lately (I've just been fighting the flu and feeding hay), except that I've spent the last couple of days topdressing the wheat. "

    Great farmer quote. I.e. "I'm really sick and doing nothing . . . except there's no days off and I'm working."

    1. I'm undecided about whether "playing hurt" by going out into the weather to feed the cattle even if I'm really sick will toughen me up and lengthen my life, or if it will weaken me in the long run and shorten my life. I guess I'll find out over the next twenty to fifty years.

      Usually it seems like going outside and doing something, even if it take three times as long to get it done, helps me feel just a little bit better (not always, but usually).

      The good thing is that the cows don't seem to mind when I'm moving slower than usual, they're pretty patient and just want something to eat no matter how long it takes me to feed them.