The Early Farmer Gets the Yield

National Wheat Yield Contest - The Early Farmer Gets the Yield

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Travis Freeburg, of R and K Farms, has spent years fine-tuning his seedbed and nutrient management at planting time to coax bin-busting yields from his wheat fields in Wyoming and Nebraska. (Progressive Farmer image by Joel Reichenberger)

You've heard about the early birds, up before dawn catching worms. Now, it's time to meet their wheat-farming counterparts.

This year's National Wheat Yield Contest winners set themselves apart from the pack in many ways, but their early-season attention to detail is top of the list. Before a planter even approaches a field, they've invested time, money and brainpower on the minutiae of planting: picking seed and seed treatments to match each field's needs, preparing the seedbed just so, studying and finessing planting population, and scrutinizing their soil's nutrient needs before an ounce of fertilizer is applied.

"My son Matt coined a phrase -- it's called 'intentional management'," says Dale Wehmeyer, an Illinois farmer and seedsman whose soft red wheat field landed fifth place in the 2020 contest's dryland winter wheat category, with an impressive yield of 119.40 bushels per acre (bpa). "Everything you do to raise that crop is because you have a goal in mind."

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE SEED

"Start by knowing the variety and building on its strengths, and mitigating its weaknesses," Wehmeyer recommends.

A good seed dealer can help you find varieties that best fit your area. Wehmeyer, for example, runs a seed company, AgriMAXX, whose varieties are finely tuned for the eastern half of the U.S., where soft red wheat is produced.

Do you need a fast-emerging variety to jump out of the ground and pile on tillers in a short, cold Midwestern fall? Or, do you want a slower, moisture-maximizing variety for a long, dry Oklahoma fall?

In southeastern Washington, John Dixon's 189.97-bpa field topped the contest's dryland winter wheat category this year. A key contributor was his variety's high rust resistance, good straw strength and solid final test weights, which make it an ideal fit for his dryland operation. "We have had this variety for several years and been very impressed with its ability to yield in our operation," he says.

Bruce Ruddenklau, who won one of the contest's Bin Buster awards with a 191.17-bpa dryland winter wheat field, farms in the well-watered, heavily irrigated region of northwestern Oregon. If his varieties can't stand up to moisture-loving fungal infections, it's time to go shopping. "When it starts to weaken on disease resistance, it's time to replace it," he explains.

Seed treatments are an increasingly popular choice among wheat farmers, as well. Packages range in ingredients, but they typically pack on an insecticide, fungicide and sometimes a plant growth stimulant.

TUCKING SEEDS IN

Travis Freeburg, whose dryland winter wheat field yielded 350% above the county average in southeastern Wyoming, knows how important no-till practices can be for preserving moisture. But, he's also discovered that his wheat fields respond beautifully to the minimum tillage they've resorted to in the face of herbicide-resistant kochia.

"We've found that we're getting better stands, because we get better soil-to-seed contact," he says. Ruddenklau unearthed similar results on his Oregon operation. "We have found that just a little bit of tillage can be beneficial," he says.

Good seedbeds are definitely possible in no-till fields, as well, notes Dave Clark, a farmer and Nutrien crop consultant in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, where no-till practices are more common because of regional environmental restrictions. But, a good planter is essential, as is the proper seeding depth for your region.

"For us, it needs to be about an inch to an inch and a half," he says. "You get better and more consistent germination, and a more even wheat stand."

LANDING ON THE RIGHT POPULATION

Ideally, a wheat farmer would pick his or her planting time with hourly precision. "I'm a firm believer in getting planted early to get the most fall tillering," Wehmeyer notes. "We know today if we can achieve three tillers per plant in the fall, that head on each tiller will be pretty close to the same size as the primary tiller." But, don't push too early for your region, he cautions, as overly lush fall fields pack problems of their own, such as disease risks and depleted soil moisture.

Tweaking planting population is another way to encourage tillering.

That's a conclusion Derek Friehe, whose 206.7-bpa irrigated winter wheat field snagged the contest's highest yield honors, also reached on his east-central Washington operation. "We were relying too much on higher seed rates," he says. Now, he focuses on planting as early as possible, getting nutrients in the ground quickly and pushing those fall tillers. "You're going to get similar results as you might with a heavier seeding rate, but you're saving on seed costs and allowing that plant to tiller out and get more space."

A late-planted field with fewer fall tillers can play catch-up if it's planted more densely, Wehmeyer says, noting that he pushes from 1.2 million seeds per acre for early planting up to 1.8 million if his fall planting date slips too far into October or early November.

Fine-tuning your plant population to match other agronomic needs is important, too, Clark says. Where he farms in central Pennsylvania, the wheat straw market is a booming business. He's found that packing fields with 1.9 million to 2.1 million seeds can maximize yields and leave a field bristling with wheat straw material and extra income. Of course, farmers have to be willing to up their fertility rates to feed those fields, he adds. "The biggest thing that changed for me in the last five years is realizing we weren't fertilizing this crop enough," he says. "Once we started to do that, wheat yields went up significantly."

TEST, TEST, TEST

Where he farms in the southeastern corner of Wyoming, violent thunderstorms form over Freeburg's wheat fields every spring and summer, and hail losses are an annual affair. This year, his winning wheat field entry just barely dodged the dreaded White Combine to make 110.37 bpa.

So, Freeburg is careful where he places his nutrients and other inputs, using variable-rate applications of micronutrients and doing soil and tissue samples before planting and throughout the season to give the soil only what it needs when it needs it.

That kind of testing and nutrient precision is a common theme among high-yielding wheat farmers. Ruddenklau does a mineralizable nitrogen test in late winter to see what his soils hold before he puts a single pound of nitrogen, sulfur or other nutrients on his field.

The father-son team of Doug and Trevor Stout have embraced variable-rate nutrient applications driven by regular soil testing on their Idaho operation. "We're taking and making the most return out of ground with soil testing and tissue sampling, and monitoring it," the elder Stout says. "We're never putting on more than what we need in each part of the field."

In fact, Doug credits this careful management with the family's multiple contest wins, including a Bin Buster dryland spring wheat yield of 139.22 bpa this year.

So, is there a downside to being a details-obsessed early bird?

Well, your work is never quite done, Clark warns.

"Seeing results from the wheat contest changed that for me," the Pennsylvania grower says. "I realized I'm not done playing with this crop yet because I don't know its full potential yet."

IRRIGATED WINTER WHEAT BIN BUSTER

Derek Friehe
Friehe Farms
Moses Lake, Washington
Variety: Limagrain Jet, at 1.28 million seeds/acre
Yield: 206.7 bpa

MEET THE FARMER: Located in central Washington, Friehe Farms grows more than 10 different crops in the Columbia Basin, including alfalfa, barley, beans, grass seed, sweet corn and wheat, with a primary focus on potatoes, which the region is famed for. The family farm pulls irrigation water from the Columbia River and Odessa Aquifer, and crosses three counties.

MEET THE FIELD: Friehe credits intensive management of wheat fields for his many yield-contest placements. He does preplant soil sampling of the fields and scouts nearly every day to manage irrigation water and check for pests. His winning field, which followed a potato rotation, received 180 pounds of nitrogen, two fungicide applications, an insecticide application and herbicides over the course of the growing season. Friehe also gave the field 16 acre-inches of irrigation water, which supplemented the measly inch of rainwater supplied by Mother Nature.

TAKE-HOME THOUGHTS: Learn from the competition, Friehe advises. He was spurred to push his wheat fields to their full potential after watching farmers in his region report sky-high yields in the first couple of years of the National Wheat Yield Contest. "You always hear stories about yield claims, and you figure people often exaggerate," Friehe says. "But, with the contest, we were hearing about real, official wheat yields from people close by us. It makes you wonder: 'Who are they working with? What are they doing? What are we missing?'â??"

IRRIGATED SPRING WHEAT BIN BUSTER

Terry Wilcox
Keith Wilcox & Sons
Rexburg, Idaho
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9668 at 1.1 million seeds/acre Yield: 172.6 bpa

MEET THE FARMER: Potatoes are the main cash crop for this southeastern Idaho farm, tucked in between Yellowstone National Park and Idaho Falls. The Wilcox brothers and a large team of employees run a potato warehouse, where they pack and ship fresh potatoes across the country. They also run a cow/calf operation and grow wheat and alfalfa, with help from the deep wells of the Snake River Aquifer. MEET THE FIELD: The winning field followed a potato crop, which can often pack a lot of leftover fertility into the soil, Wilcox notes. Careful preplant soil sampling helped him know to supplement zinc, phosphorus, sulfur and some micronutrients, on top of the 160 pounds of nitrogen added to the field. Some of it goes on preplant, but Wilcox also streams nitrogen on through his irrigation system during the growing season, which helps to capture the protein his hard red spring varieties are bred to pack on. A fungicide application staved off Fusarium, and -- with little reliable rainfall to depend on at his area's lofty, 5,000-foot elevation -- Wilcox also added 14 acre-inches of water.

TAKE-HOME THOUGHTS: Wilcox highlights early-season management, namely seedbed preparation and early planting, as key to high yields. But, he credits his employees for the rest of his successful farming operation. "Get good people, and take care of your people," he says.

DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT BIN BUSTER

Bruce Ruddenklau
Ruddenklau Farms
Amity, Oregon
Variety: OSU's Rosalyn, at 810,000 seeds/acre
Yield: 191.17 bpa

MEET THE FARMER: Bruce and his wife, Helle, farm in the Willamette Valley in west-central Oregon, just 30 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. They primarily grow grass seed, such as tall fescue and perennial ryegrass, for the turfgrass market. Their diverse operation also encompasses a handful of specialty seed crops, such as sugar beet and radish seed, in addition to bush beans and, of course, wheat. Their valley receives a wealth of moisture, between 40-inch average rainfalls and irrigation available from the Willamette River Basin.

MEET THE FIELD: The winning field followed a radish seed crop and was seeded with an aim of 22 seeds per square foot. A wet spring, minimum tillage and heavy residue encouraged slugs, so the Ruddenklaus applied slug bait shortly after planting. After a shot of 10-34-0 at planting, they used winter soil samples to determine how much nitrogen and other nutrients were available before adding 140 pounds of nitrogen and 20 pounds of sulfur in the springtime. With plentiful moisture around to encourage disease all season long, the Ruddenklaus treated the field with three fungicide applications to keep Septoria tritici blotch, stripe rust and Septoria nodorum blotch at bay.

TAKE-HOME THOUGHTS: Getting wheat off to a good start is Bruce's best advice for hitting economic maximum yields in wheat. He's a big proponent of carefully managed, minimal tillage ahead of wheat planting and heading off pests like weeds and bugs. "Overall, we need a good seedbed, good soil-to-seed contact and control of grasses and slugs," he says.

DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT BIN BUSTER

Trevor Stout
DT Stout J.V.
Genesee, Idaho
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9303, at 1.2 million seeds/acre
Yield: 139.22 bpa

MEET THE FARMER: Trevor Stout represents the fifth generation of Stouts on his family's operation in north-central Idaho. He helps his father, Doug, grow wheat, chickpeas and canola on their dryland acres, some of which have been in the family since 1890. Their region hovers at the high end of the semiarid category, with about 20 inches of rain a year.

MEET THE FIELD: The Stouts attribute much of the success of the family's winning wheat fields to Mother Nature's excellent cooperation in 2020. "We had perfect rains in May and June -- it was just like irrigating," Doug notes. Even a deep freeze late in the spring couldn't hold back this field, which received variable-rate applications of 170 and 215 pounds of nitrogen, based on the potential of each soil zone. Along with sulfur, phosphorus, copper, boron and other micronutrients, Trevor applies their nitrogen in multiple applications across the growing season. Ideal moderate growing temperatures in June during grain fill helped finish off the field.

TAKE-HOME THOUGHTS: Second only to weather, the Stouts believe managing fertility is the most important aspect of their high-yielding success. They credit Trevor's variable-rate nutrient zone creations and applications with making the most of all parts of the field, from the most marginal to the most promising. "We're doing soil testing and tissue sampling and monitoring, so we're not wasting fertilizer and never putting on more than each part of the field needs," Doug says.

2020 NATIONAL WINNERS:

DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT CATEGORY

First Place:
John Dixon
Pomeroy, Washington
Variety: McGregor Seed M-Press
Yield: 189.97 bpa

John Dixon rotates between spring wheat, winter wheat and fallow periods on his dryland operation in Garfield County, Washington, where elevations range from 800 feet up to nearly 4,000 feet. His winning field, which sits at 2,800 feet, was planted to 950,000 seeds per acre into good moisture and benefited from 5 inches that arrived just in time in the late spring and early summer after a dry winter. With guidance from a preplant soil test, Dixon fed his winning field throughout the season with around 170 pounds of nitrogen, as well as sulfur, phosphorus and potassium, in addition to micronutrients like magnesium, boron and zinc. He credits good agronomic attention to helping this variety, with its good straw strength, test weight and rust resistance, maximize its potential.

Second Place:
Doug Stout
Genesee, Idaho
Variety: WestBred Keldin
Yield: 179.91 bpa

Third Place:
Nick Suwyn
Wayland, Michigan
Variety: AgriPro SY 576
Yield: 170.24 bpa

Fourth Place:
Darren Grumbine
Lebanon, Pennsylvania
Variety: Pioneer 25R77
Yield: 152.86 bpa

Fifth Place:
Dale Wehmeyer
Mascoutah, Illinois
Variety: AgriMAXX (AM) 513
Yield: 119.40 bpa

DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT ABOVE-AVERAGE CATEGORY

First Place:
Travis Freeburg
Pine Bluffs, Wyoming
Variety: WestBred (WB) 4462
Yield: 110.37 bpa (349.57% above Laramie County average)

Freeburg's crop and cow/calf operation spans two states across western Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming, where they grow corn, millet, alfalfa and wheat. His winning field, planted at between 1.1 and 1.2 million seeds per acre, got his usual 5-star treatment. That includes careful soil sampling and adding up to 150 pounds of nitrogen, in addition to phosphorus, sulfur and other micronutrients. He also applies fungicide twice a season, in addition to herbicides and minimum tillage to control weeds. Most importantly, Freeburg says, the field got steady rainfall and barely dodged the hail storms that destroyed up to 4,000 acres of his crops this year.

Second Place:
CR Freeman
Lone Wolf, Oklahoma
Variety: OK Genetics, Inc. OK Corral
Yield: 100.60 bpa (308.44% above Kiowa County average)

Third Place:
Scott Kodesh
Marland, Oklahoma
Variety: WestBred (WB) 4699
Yield: 98.98 bpa (206.63% above Noble County average)

Fourth Place:
Levi Johnson
Helena, Oklahoma
Variety: WestBred (WB) 4699
Yield: 111.32 bpa (206.16% above Alfalfa County average)

Fifth Place:
Tyler Ediger
Meade, Kansas
Variety: WestBred (WB) 4792
Yield: 108.43 bpa (205.01% above Meade County average)

DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT CATEGORY

First Place:
Randy Duncan
Tekoa, Washington
Variety: WestBred (WB) 6121
Yield: 125.79 bpa

Randy Duncan farms in counties in two states -- Benewah County, Idaho, and Spokane County, Washington, where he raises wheat, malt barley, oats, lentils, peas, chickpeas, Timothy hay and Kentucky bluegrass for seed. He picked this variety for its ability to tolerate his acidic soils and seeded it at roughly 1.6 million seeds per acre. With about 155 pounds of nitrogen applied over the fall and early spring, the field got off to a roaring start, Duncan recalls. Regular rainfall across the course of the growing season fed the crop, and Duncan also added a herbicide and fungicide application. He credits the fall nutrients, plentiful rainfall and well-drained soils of this winning field for allowing this variety to shine.

Second Place:
Tom Duyck
Forest Grove, Oregon
Variety: Washington State Diva
Yield: 123.60 bpa

Third Place:
Rick Albrecht
Wimbledon, North Dakota
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9590
Yield: 120.65 bpa

DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT ABOVE-AVERAGE CATEGORY

First Place:
Jon Wert
New England, North Dakota
Variety: LCS Trigger
Yield: 105 bpa (160.68% above Slope County average)

Wert farms with his wife, Sheri, son, Devin, and daughter, Brenna, in southwest North Dakota, where they raise wheat, canola and corn. Their operation has been no-till since the early 1980s, which helped his winning field hang on to fall moisture through a dry growing season with only 7 inches of rainfall. Soil testing and tissue testing help them land on their nutrient plan: 115 pounds of nitrogen over the course of the field's life, in addition to phosphorus, sulfur and potash. Two fungicide applications and weed control kept pests and weeds at bay. Wert also gives credit to this variety, which has landed him two first place and one third place awards in the wheat contest over the past three years.

Second Place:
Jordan Christman
Hettinger, North Dakota
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9719
Yield: 91.44 bpa (132.44% above Adams County average)

Third Place:
Raymond and Amanda Kopp
Des Lacs, North Dakota
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9719
Yield: 115.24 bpa (126.18% over Ward County average)

IRRIGATED SPRING WHEAT CATEGORY

First Place:
Dallin Wilcox
Rexburg, Idaho
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9707
Yield: 167.02 bpa

Dallin Wilcox farms with his uncles and father in southeast Idaho, where -- in addition to growing wheat, potatoes and alfalfa, they run a cow/calf operation and operate a fresh pack potato warehouse. This winning spring wheat field followed a potato crop and was seeded at 1.1 million seeds per acre, Dallin's uncle Terry Wilcox says. With guidance from preplant soil sampling, they added around 160 pounds of nitrogen, in addition to zinc, phosphorus, sulfur and micronutrients, as well as a fungicide application to stave off disease. In addition to rainfall, the field received around 14 acre-inches of water.

Second Place:
James Getzinger
Moses Lake, Washington
Variety: WestBred (WB) 9662
Yield: 164.34 bpa

IRRIGATED WINTER WHEAT CATEGORY

First Place:
Joel Zwainz
Reardan, Washington
Variety: Limagrain Shine
Yield: 197.15 bpa

Joel Zwainz raises wheat, canola and peas in east-central Washington. His operation is mostly dryland, but his first time farming irrigated ground this year produced this winning field. After careful consultation with other irrigated farmers and agronomists, Zwainz selected this soft white variety, which he seeded at around 1.3 million seeds per acre. His rigorous testing system -- soil samples in the fall and spring, as well as tissue samples in the spring -- led him to add a total of 220 pounds of nitrogen across the growing season, as well as phosphorus, sulfur and micronutrients. Two fungicide applications and one insecticide application rounded out this field's bin-busting yield, as well as weekly irrigation of 1.5 inches on top of 8 inches at planting and Mother Nature's 9-inch contribution.

Second Place:
Rylee Reynolds
Castleford, Idaho
Variety: AgriPro SY Ovation
Yield: 196.85 bpa

**

> See the full contest results for this year and learn how to sign up for the 2021 contest at: wheatfoundation.org/projects-programs/national-wheat-yield-contest.

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