Wheat field

Wheat tosses in the breeze outside of Steeleville on May 19.

According to the old saying, if you plant wheat in the dust, the bins will bust. That sounds good to Vernon Mayer.

“If that’s the case, there will be a lot of busted bins next year,” said Mayer, who farms near Pinckneyville in Perry County.

Mother Nature turned off the faucet in late summer in Illinois, and a lot of wheat went in dry. But Mayer and others are still encouraged.

“It was the driest I’ve ever planted it,” he said. “I got a little rain on it, and our wheat’s looking good now.”

Brent Rains, a consultant with Crop IMS, works with more than a dozen wheat growers in southwestern Illinois.

Many of his customers had concerns about germination and stands.

“It quit raining in mid-August,” he said. “… Overall, we had reduced stands in population vs. normal. That was due to the dry, powdery conditions when they were planting.”

Rains said most of his customers drill wheat, and had issues putting the seed where they wanted.

“There were such dry areas, the drill would skitter on top of the ground and wasn’t able to penetrate,” he said. “We had some problems here and there. If it was on bean ground, you even had places where it was clean tilled, they had their depth issues. Most planted shallow because the ground was so hard. There was some stuff germinating near the surface.”

Syngenta agronomist Phil Krieg has seen things turn around in a hurry.

“Nothing was wet at planting,” Krieg said. “A lot of the wheat was put in fairly dry. But emergence is good and stands look good.”

Wheat yields are increasing in Illinois, while acreage is shrinking. Rains said he believes those who don’t engage in intense management are dropping out of the game while those who do are increasingly reaping the fruits of their labors.

Krieg agrees.

“What we’re going to see is the guys who are going to stay with wheat are the ones who are going to push that yield envelope,” he said. “The opportunistic wheat grower is not going to stay in the wheat business. Intensive management is the way to go.”

That usually involves several trips across a field, with split fertilizer applications and proactive spraying of fungicides. Such techniques, coupled with improved varieties, helped growers set a record this year, with a statewide average of 74 bushels per acre.

Mayer, who farms with his sons John and Brian, has been happy with the production they have been getting with intensive management.

“Yield this year was the best ever, and quality has never been better,” he said. “We had really good wheat this year, with more bushels and better quality than I’ve ever had.”

But this is no time to rest. The Mayers are working to clean up their fields as the plants head into winter dormancy.

“The past two days, Brian has been spraying Harmony on the wheat,” Mayer said. “We don’t have garlic anymore because we spray every year, but we try to take care of the henbit and winter annuals so they don’t compete with the wheat.”

They apply fungicides at heading and at the bloom stage.

“That’s been working pretty good for us,” Mayer said. “Everybody wants your wheat if it’s good quality.”

Rains has seen acreage increase in his area. About a dozen of his clients grow wheat, and that acreage has grown from 5,300 last year to about 5,800 this fall.

But that is an outlier. Overall, wheat acreage is tightening. Krieg has seen huge reductions in acreage in some regions of the state.

“In some counties, acreage has plummeted 50 percent or more. I would say probably in southern Illinois we’re down probably 15 percent from last year,” he said. “It just seems to be a lack of confidence in wheat has plagued southern Illinois over the past few years.”

NAT WILLIAMS writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.

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