Last week several students in Plant Science asked what was being drilled into fields in the area. They were sure it couldn’t be wheat, especially around the Labor Day weekend. One had even noticed a drill in the field the last week of August. They knew the ideal time to plant wheat according to K-State is after the “fly free” date which in this area is the first week of October.
This is recommended to minimize the chance of Hessian fly infestations which can hurt growth, yield and cause severe lodging. For more susceptible varieties, it can wipe out whole sections of wheat plants when severe enough. While south of here in Pratt and Stafford counties some of the drilling may have been rye for winter cattle pasture, there was indeed wheat being drilled and if you had driven in Sedgwick and Reno Counties last weekend, you could have seen a field here and there with wheat emerging. There are several reasons for planting so far ahead of the fly free date.
In the sandy soils south of Great Bend, especially those that have worked the ground and have bare soil, the first priority is covering the soil to prevent wind erosion. They want the wheat to tiller and cover the soil as soon as possible. Worrying about Hessian fly or diseases is secondary. Some sand hill farmers keep and plant older, taller varieties that have longer coleoptiles and can be planted deeper, emerge rapidly, and cover the ground quickly. Yield is not as important as keeping the ground from moving.
The area needs quality pasture for cattle and needs it now. Winter wheat makes excellent pasture during the fall and into March. Wheat for pasture is planted earlier than wheat for grain-only to facilitate grazing as soon as possible. That shouldn’t happen until the wheat is well-tillered, has a strong root system to anchor it when grazed and has adequate top growth. Earlier planting should result in earlier grazing if the weather cooperates. With the more moderate temperatures and enough moisture to germinate and emerge the wheat, there was a window to establish pasture. Some years it is too hot and dry for the wheat but this year the opportunity was there and some producers took it.
Finally, with the weather of the last two growing seasons, producers have to consider that the moisture in the top several inches of soil could be lost and even with some deeper moisture the wheat has to be able to establish roots down to it. It’s better to deal with problems associated with having an early established wheat crop than not being able to establish one. With the early planting strategy you are hoping to allow the wheat to establish an extensive root system and the maximum amount of tillers. The potential downside is “wasting” water on early growth and not having soil moisture later in the season or increasing the chance of winterkill from desiccation. But again, at least you have a crop to worry about. Wheat may have nine lives but until it germinates and emerges, it can waste any of them.
Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207._)