With frequent spates of warm weather this winter, it’s been an unusual wheat growing year.

Not long ago, growing wheat in southern Illinois seemed simple. Four major events marked the growing season: planting, nitrogen application sometime in January, another nitrogen application in late March or early April, and then harvest in late June or early July. As the saying goes, times were simpler then and the weather was more predictable.

That process sure has changed over the years. We have added more trips across the field as we have learned more high-yield management techniques. Many farmers have a recipe or a strategic plan for growing wheat today. Their plans have specific timing for applications to ensure the most effective results when applying any treatment to the field. However, those plans are also still somewhat tied to specific weather patterns or crop growth progress that are used to time these applications.

One practice that combines a calendar event and growth progress is making the last nitrogen application sometime at the end of March or beginning of April (calendar event) when the wheat begins to joint and elongate (growth event). Weather can influence the growth event.

This hasn’t been a typical year when we can use calendar events or growth stages to predict when to make applications. A very warm January and February, with high temperatures in the mid 60s F and overnight lows in the 40s F some days, have kept the wheat green and growing almost all year. Many people question if the wheat ever went “dormant” this year. Questions of when to apply the first application of nitrogen began in early January and into February based on the green and growing crop. Tiller counts have been very high in many places as well because of the warm winter.

Many growers using the calendar approach were hesitant to apply nitrogen too soon, stimulating wheat to grow too much too early. Then March arrived with some colder temperatures, with a few nighttime lows in the wheat canopy down to 13 F, and many wondered if the freeze hurt the crop. Some fields that had adequate nitrogen jointed in mid-March this year. This caused some panic in areas to get the last shot of nitrogen on as well as an application of herbicide to keep the fields clean. Fungicides have been applied to some fields already with the concerns raised by recent southerly winds and thunderstorms. And, after a dry winter, many are concerned that fields will get muddy as they contemplate the next application of fungicide or nitrogen.

As we enter April many wonder what is next with the weather and the wheat crop. Through all of this we must continue to do a few things right to ensure our success in uncertain times:

  1. Always practice good agronomy. Your timing may be off from past years, but the crop will tell you what it needs and when.
  2. Watch the weather but don’t try to outguess it. It is better to make a timely application when soils are wet than a rushed application in dry fields when the crop doesn’t need it.
  3. Don’t take your cue to go into the field from your neighbor or retailer. Instead, rely on the condition and needs of your crop. Don’t be peer pressured into making any application because everyone else is. Again, see #1.
  4. Details matter. In years of extremes we often focus on the big picture things we cannot change, like the weather, and ignore the little things that add up either in cost or profit. Pay attention to details and control the controllables.

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About the Author: Kelly Robertson

Kelly was raised on a family farm in Benton, Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University (SIU)-Carbondale with a bachelor's in agriculture education and mechanization, and a master's in plant and soil science. He has spent 25 years as a soil fertility agronomist and precision agriculture consultant in Southern Illinois while also spending 4 years as a Farm/Agronomy Manager and GIS Coordinator for a large farm in southeastern Illinois. He is a Certified Professional Agronomist and a Certified Crop Adviser and was the Double-Crop Specialist for the Illinois Soybean Association in 2015.