Record-breaking temperatures during the third week of March have many growers in Eastern Canada heading to the fields performing a variety of tasks.
That’s the news from Peter Johnson, cereals specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in Guelph. Much of the winter wheat crop has emerged from dormancy in fairly good shape, however, the warm weather has also imparted a false sense of security with some farmers.
"There’s been a fair bit of nitrogen going on wheat, and manure going on wheat and manure in general being applied," Johnson said.
But he notes it’s still too early in the wheat plant’s development to be applying full rates of nitrogen, which is why provincial advisors are cautious when it comes to fertilizer recommendations. Although some have thrown caution to the wind and applied their full rates, others have cut back to 30 to 40 pounds and will wait until mid- to late-April before applying their next round.
The more pressing issue facing wheat growers right now, Johnson added, is the quick start some of the weed species have had with this stretch of weather.
Instead of worrying about "nitrogen first — and then spraying for weeds," Johnson advocated growers always assess spraying needs based on the most prevalent issues. For 2012, that means going after weeds such as chickweed ahead of applying nitrogen.
"Most years, it’s the right plan to go after chickweed first," said Johnson, adding that in some fields, the weed is already 12 inches in diameter and is now flowering in many of those fields.
"That’s six inches out in each direction, and it’s a hard weed to kill. At that size, it would be affecting 20 to 25 wheat plants, so if you have those weeds, spray them."
Shepherd’s purse, whitlow grass and dandelions are some of the other species making an early appearance. Johnson notes that lamb’s quarters and pigweed are not likely to show up in fields until mid-April.
Another concern being brought to advisors is the potential for diseases in wheat. But Johnson downplayed the notion of applying early fungicides, saying that in spite of anything damaging older leaves, there is not enough new growth in the plant to justify spraying with a fungicide.
Overall, Johnson said he’s pleased with the winter wheat crop’s status coming out of winter. He admitted there may be some replants, especially those crops planted on heavier clay soils, where there’s been too much rain. In some of those fields, he said, there’s little or no wheat in spots, mostly between the tile lines.
There will, however, be a solid market for straw in 2012, for those growers willing to keep their wheat crops intact, and looking for above-average prices. In fact, some it will go for 3.5 to four cents per pound, as much as double the usual two-cent price.
What the warmer weather has also brought is early seeding — including anecdotal reports of spring grains, particularly oats, in Lambton County.
Johnson conceded early spring cereals are a good fit for those looking for long-term rotational benefits. It won’t be a matter where oats, barley or spring cereal acreages will increase significantly. But those farmers who normally plant those crops will benefit from earlier crop development.
"One grower I was talking to put in 50 acres of spring wheat," Johnson said. "He got it planted (March 21), hoping for two to 2.5 tonnes of spring wheat. He said when he added in the rotation benefit, it was worth it."
One final note of optimism: Johnson said he knew of two fields that were planted to corn on March 21, despite warnings from provincial ministry and private-sector advisors that very early planting of corn bears little or no benefit to yields.
A University of Illinois ag economist recently determined there is a greater likelihood of a slight yield penalty for very early-planted corn, with the greatest benefit in yield coming from early to normal planting dates.
— Ralph Pearce is a field editor for Country Guide at St. Marys, Ont.