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Wheat field

Wheat tosses in the breeze outside of Steeleville in May.

MOUNT VERNON — Wheat growers in southern Illinois may never be able to match the monster yields their counterparts across the pond pull from their fields. But at least one Englishman is convinced U.S. farmers can continue to boost production here.

Phil Needham, a transplanted Brit who is now a crop consultant in Kentucky, has seen yields as high as 220 bushels per acre on some fields on his family’s farm in the southeastern part of the island nation. The nearly year-long growing season and favorable climate result in big production.

And while that is unattainable for Midwestern farmers growing wheat as a double-crop partner with soybeans, many are pushing the 100-bushel mark. Growers in Illinois set a record last year, averaging 74 bushels per acre.

Since 1989, when Needham moved to the United States, he has concentrated on helping growers succeed with intensive wheat programs.

“I started thinking about the big things and the smaller things to improve wheat yields and profit,” he told growers at a double-crop conference here, organized by the state’s wheat and soybean associations.

Needham sees timing as a critical element. That covers planting, spraying and harvesting. Well-timed application of fungicides, such as those that control fusarium head blight, are key. The disease — commonly referred to as scab — can drag a crop down.

“An old saying my grandfather had is that the difference between a good farmer and a bad farmer is a week,” Needham said. “Today, the difference may be a day or two. In a year with high fusarium pressure, that could mean the difference between getting acceptable fusarium suppression, or not much at all.”

Scab devalues a wheat crop in multiple ways. The disease can affect yield, but it can also result in dockage due to low test weight and presence of the toxin deoxynivalenol, or DON.

As with all crops, variety selection is near the top of the priority list. Needham recommends farmers look at four main traits. They include high yield potential, scab resistance, high test weight and early maturity.

While early maturities are important in a double-crop system, spreading those maturities a bit provides a tight but flexible harvest schedule.

“There are definitely varieties that work well within an intensive wheat management system, and some that don’t,” Needham said. “We strongly advise that you plant early, medium and late varieties to spread the risk.”

Double-crop wheat actually does better on no-till ground, research shows. More than a decade of trials conducted by Needham and others in conjunction with the University of Kentucky point to an economic advantage.

“We found that the yield of no-till is within about 2 bushels per acre of worked ground. If you figure the cost of tillage, the no-till wheat is ahead,” Needham said. “To me, the biggest advantage of no-till is the ability to get a crop in the ground when you need to in the spring, with an herbicide and nitrogen. For guys with a disk or chisel, it’s hard to get across these grounds in the spring.”

Most of the wheat grown in Kentucky is sown into stubble in no-till fields. Needham prefers using draper headers for harvest to produce a more consistent planting medium for soybeans, though he acknowledges that for many farmers, that may not pencil out.

“Most planters today are still based on a conventional tillage platform,” he said. “I know they’re heavier and a bit stronger, but most planters are not designed to plant into 100-bushel residue at 8 in the morning. But if you have residue as consistently as possible, that helps. Draper heads are better.”

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


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