by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Joanna Follings, representing the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, presented “High Management Wheat in the Great Lakes Region” at this year’s Soybean & Small Grains Congress hosted by Cornell University. Follings is part of the Yield Enhancement Network, which connects ag organizations to improve crop yields by closing the gap between potential yield and actual yield. The organization benchmarks farms and evaluated management practices to help farmers improve their crop yields.

Project partners include Grain Farmers of Ontario, Michigan Wheat Program, University of Guelph, Certified Crop Advisers and YEN Great Lakes. The locations include 43 fields – 23 in Ontario, 18 in Michigan and two in Ohio.

“We asked each grower to select a portion of the field that is fairly representative,” Follings said. “We’re asking for a one- to three-acre area. Within that area, we have 10 spots we sample … before any nitrogen is applied. Some of the soil components have to do with yield potential. Once the crop reaches the first node, we collect samples then and look at all the nutrients. This year, we’ll add sugars to see how that influences nutrient content.”

The researchers collect samples from the crop and measure height, weight and spikelets per head, plus analyze them for nutrients and quality. They also compare data from NASA regarding minimum and maximum daily temperatures, rainfall and solar radiation to see how these factors affect yield quantity and quality.

“The average grain yield was 115 bushels per acre across all the farms, including Ontario, Michigan and Ohio,” Follings said. “The average yield potential, determined using crop modeling, was 220 bushels per acre.” She added that the average percent of potential yield the farmers achieved was 52.54% across all sites.

Those with higher yields tended to be the farms with nitrogen applied at the right amount and at the right time. These crops had the highest biomass.

High management wheat tips

The YEN program in 2021 during harvest. Photo courtesy of Joanna Follings

An earlier seeding date was associated with an earlier canopy closure and more fall tiller development. Follings also observed that growers who spend more on inputs per acre spent less per bushel of their harvest. She attributed that seeming paradox to their attention to detail, such as soil health. “Tall crops with high straw nitrogen correlate to big yields,” she added.

Applying fungicide at the right time also influences yield. “I’ve never seen powdery mildew pressure as high as I’ve seen in 2021,” Follings said.

The growers who applied multiple applications of fungicide and did so at T3 or flowering stage received the best protection against Fusarium head blight. “This year, the three-pass fungicide program was the highest yielding,” Follings said.

While her findings hold weight, she cautioned that she has only one year of data available. With such a narrow window of information, that risks variability in other years. Since the data were collected by farmers, that raises the risk of data collection errors. The NASA weather data were not as farm-specific as Follings would like. The research also assumes that water used is equal across all farms: 20 mm per 15 bushels. “In the future, we’re hoping to tease this out,” Follings said. “We want to continue to build our dataset year over year. We want growers to get a better understanding of how their management influences their yield and profitability and what those tissue results mean.”

In the 2022 growing season, she plans to double the number of grower participants, with 56 in Ontario, and 50-plus in Michigan, Ohio and New York. An improved data collection platform should make the process more accurate. The researchers also plan to include additional parameters on soil and tissue tested, including sugar levels in leaf tissue and nitrogen mineralization from the soil.

She’s also looked at planting date. So far, her research indicates that “planting date has a significant effect on wheat yield and components. Diquat application may advance soybean harvest maturity. Seven-day increase in soybean harvest maturity will result in a possible wheat yield increase of 0.53 milligrams per hectare.”

Follings offered a few thoughts: plant early and well within the optimum planting date range; use soil tests and rotate crops; and history of manure on the land seems to help increase yield slightly.

She plans to continue this research in 2022.