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Update from the Field: If You Can’t Stand the Wheat, Get Out of the Kitchen

Posted by Dave Dyson, Agronomist on March 13, 2019

This post may reference products and/or services only available to our Retail Farm Center customers. For more information contact your Territory Manager at The Andersons.

When planting wheat in the fall, you should be shooting for a population of 1.7 million seeds per acre. If you achieve a planting population of at least 1.5 million seeds per acre and 90% of the seeds germinate, you have succeeded in getting a great start to the wheat crop. Ideally, applying a good starter fertilizer at planting will jump-start the crop’s tillering process through winter, ensuring a nice carpet of vegetation for spring. 

The problem we are dealing with now is the possibility of a reduction in tiller numbers due to the delayed wheat planting and the cool, wet, environmental conditions last fall. The number of tillers and how many of these survive through to harvest also determines the number of heads at harvest and the potential yield. If we want to improve spring tillering, leaf growth, and shoot survival, we need to put together a fertilizer program that includes nitrogen, phosphate, and zinc, which are important for increasing leaf and shoot numbers. 

Nitrogen is the single most important nutrient for achieving high yields. Adequate supply will grow bigger leaves and therefore more shoots, with each leaf developing faster. Nitrogen deficiency, on the other hand, reduces the rate of primordia initiation, which reduces the number of potential grain sites. The survival of the shoots and tillers that are produced can be influenced by interactions between nitrogen application rates and timing. When shoot numbers are below the optimum, an application of a higher nitrogen rate early in the season will increase shoots and thereby final head numbers. To ensure your nitrogen application stays in the root zone and does not burn sensitive leaf tissue, apply UltraMate® Zn at a rate of 1 gallon per acre.

Phosphorus is considered to be the second most important nutrient after nitrogen in terms of its influence on plant growth and development. After the crop has developed two to three leaves it will begin to rely on soil-available phosphorus for continued leaf and shoot numbers growth. Applying a suitable starter fertilizer at seeding will ensure a good supply of phosphorus ready for the wheat plant to take up in the spring. In the period from March to May, 70% of phosphate will be taken up by the wheat crop, according to Yara Hanninghof Research Center (figure 1). When tillering numbers are low, applying Phosfix® at a 1-2 pt/ac rate with topdress will improve early spring growth and development.  Phosfix (7-4-9) is derived from phosphite, which assists plants in maximizing utilization of the phosphorus. Phosfix also contains cytokinins, gibberellic acid, and auxins that help with cell division, cell elongation, and cell differentiation, respectively.

Figure 1: Seasonal phosphate uptake: 70% of phosphorus is taken up between March and May. 

Zinc is an important micronutrient that affects developing components of yield, such as influencing phosphorus efficiency and enzyme production. If zinc is in luxury supply, the tillers will set optimum grain in the heads, resulting in increased harvested yield. Zinc has also been associated with improving the uptake of other nutrients, both macro and micronutrients. An Egyptian study, figures 2 & 3, shows an increase in tillers/meter, seeds/tiller, and an increase in N, P, K, and micros in the flag leaf when zinc was foliar applied.

Figure 2: This study shows with an application of foliar zinc, we can increase the number of spikes or tillers per square meter by about 120 and the number of grains per spike or tiller by about 6. Ref: M.S. Zeidan et. Al. World J. Agric. Sci. 6 (6): 696-699, 2010

Figure 3: This shows the amount of nutrients that can be found in the flag leaf when Fe, Mn, or Zn is foliar applied.  This explains why we see an increase in tillers per meter and seeds per tiller. By foliar applying zinc, the plant will uptake more N, P, K, and micros. Ref: M.S. Zeidan et. Al. World J. Agric. Sci. 6 (6): 696-699, 2010

In conclusion, if we want to increase the ability of a wheat plant to tiller and put more grain in each head, I recommend applying 25-30 gal/ac of 28% nitrogen solution, 1 gal/ac of UltraMate Zn, and 1 qt/ac of Phosfix during topdress. If you have any questions, please give me a call at 260-578-4884 or contact your ag dealer who supplies these products.


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David Dyson

Dave Dyson is a regional agronomist for The Andersons’ Farm Centers which are located throughout Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. He is an Indiana native and grew up on a dairy farm in Miami County. A graduate of Purdue University with a degree in Crop & Soil Science, Dave has a deep knowledge of various agronomic topics and is committed to helping growers improve their crops. If you have any questions, Dave can be reached at david_dyson@andersonsinc.com


Phosfix and UltraMate are registered trademarks of The Andersons, Inc. 

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