GHGMP Project Reports by Region

Winter wheat takes root outside traditional territory

It's a versatile high yielding crop that can deliver valuable benefits to producers and the environment

Growing winter cereals in both traditional and non-traditional areas can produce a wide range of benefits for producers and the environment, says an Alberta soil conservation specialist.

Including a winter cereal in rotation helps spread the workload, makes better use of equipment and nutrient resources, creates potential to produce a higher value crop and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Ron Heller, an agronomist with Alberta Reduced Tillage LINKAGES (RTL), a long-running provincial soil conservation initiative.

Reduce inputs

"Winter wheat, for example, is such an effective competitor a lot of producers like it because they can save $15 per acre in wild oat herbicide," says Heller. "That's just one of several advantages."

Heller, based in Vermilion, Alta. and RTL colleague Rick Taillieu, based in Camrose, continue with farm-scale demonstration projects this year that show the value of including a crop such as winter wheat in rotation. The demonstration is one of the projects partially funded by the federal Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program (GHGMP).

Including a winter cereal in rotation helps reduce greenhouse gas emission on several fronts. Direct seeding winter wheat into standing stubble, greatly reduces the loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere. High soil disturbance either at seeding or through conventional summerfallow releases high amounts of stored carbon. As well, a vigorously growing winter cereal makes better use of soil nutrients reducing the risk of nitrogen being lost through leaching or escaping into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide through denitrification. And the crop also captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it as carbon in plant tissue.

For decades winter wheat was considered a crop for the southern Prairies mostly grown in Alberta south of the Trans-Canada Highway, a region prone to the milder winters. But in the past 10 years, more producers in non-traditional areas have found success with the crop.

"Direct seeding has made winter wheat a viable crop throughout central Alberta," says Heller. "By seeding directly into crop residue, there's opportunity for the standing stubble to trap snow that can protect the crop over winter. The risk of winterkill is greatly reduced."

Near record production

Although the seeded acres vary, Alberta producers are expected to harvest about 130,000 acres of winter wheat this year, with about 25 percent of those acres spread over the non-traditional area. The 2003 figures are the highest since 1991. "Moisture is a big factor," says Craig Shaw, a grain and oilseed producer near Lacombe and president of the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission.

"You need adequate seed bed moisture at seeding to get the crop growing and recent years of drought have discouraged more acres," says Shaw. With improved moisture last fall, winter wheat seedings were double the acreage seeded in 2002 and about 65 percent higher than the long-term average. "We're pleased to see renewed interest in winter wheat acres," says Shaw. "If we have decent moisture hopefully more producers will include it in rotation."

Efficient crop

In a direct seeding system, including winter cereal in rotation helps producers make better use of resources, says Heller, though a standard crop rotation needs to be adjusted to include a winter cereal. Ideally, winter wheat in non-traditional areas should be seeded in late August or early September. "That means one crop needs to be harvested by the end of August so there's enough time to seed winter wheat," says Heller.

To achieve this producers might plan to seed winter wheat after silage barley has been harvested, or after an early-spring seeded canola crop is combined. There's a limited seeding window in all regions. Seeding too early can result in advanced growth before winter and lower crop vigor next spring, while seeding too late can result in lower yields from reduced winter hardiness, increased weed competition, delayed heading, delayed maturity and reduced bushel weight. "Producers need to understand the timing issues are different than spring cropping," says Heller.

Banding benefits

"Banding fertilizer in the soil is a more efficient means of supplying crop nutrients than broadcast application," says Heller. "Side-banding at seeding makes even more efficient use of fertilizer. Given that fall seeding may not provide adequate time for a soil test recommendation, some or all nitrogen and other nutrients can be easily side-banded with winter wheat. As the crop germinates it will seek nutrients immediately and direct seeding provides the opportunity to precision-place crop fertilizer. With winter wheat that benefit can extend to early the following spring when the crop is hungry for moisture and nutrition."

With spring-seeded crops, fall-fertilizer application increases the risk of nutrients being leached from the soil or lost to the atmosphere over winter. "Producers can get more value from their fertilizer dollars, and at the same time minimize the loss of nitrogen which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions," says Heller.

There are about a dozen winter wheat varieties, including standard and semi-dwarf types, well-suited for traditional and non-traditional production areas. It can be a high-yielding crop, competing well with CPS and other wheats in yield, says Heller. "We haven't topped the 80 bushel mark yet, but we have lots of producers in the high 70s. Depending on variety and quality there are also contracting opportunities that can increase crop value."

Demonstration sites

One winter wheat demonstration project at the Parkland Conservation Farm near Mundare will look at both winter and spring wheat in rotation with peas, canola and barley over a 5-year period. "The idea is to show producers that winter wheat can be a good fit in rotation," says Heller.

Other trials and producer experience has shown the crop does well on barley, canola and pea stubble.

Heller also began a project last fall involving winter wheat direct-seeded into sod. After harvest, the hay field regrowth was killed with a herbicide in late summer before the winter wheat was seeded. Other winter cereals, such as winter triticale and fall rye, are also being demonstrated to producers.

In related activity, the Battle River Applied Research Association headquartered in Camrose is demonstrating winter wheat projects at six different sites with a number of producer tours being planned by Heller and Taillieu for 2004.

"The goal in all these projects is to show producers winter wheat and other winter cereals can be a valuable part of a rotation," says Heller. The benefits of winter wheat include direct seeding in the fall, which spreads out both the seeding and harvesting workload, a competitive crop that helps control weeds, improved nutrient-use efficiency which benefits production and the environment, and a crop that can be marketed early in the season. "A more diverse rotation generally contributes to a more vigorous, more productive, and more sustainable cropping system," he says.

Regional reports will be posted as information becomes available. Please check back regularly for updates.