Strong stand establishment ensures a healthy, profitable crop

No matter what crop you are growing, solid stand establishment will help mitigate weeds, make the best use of nutrients, sun and moisture and give your crop its best chance against yield-robbing pests and disease.

Without a good solid stand establishment, your crop will lack uniformity and present all kinds of challenges during the growing season, says Joanna Follings, cereals specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “If your crop emerges unevenly, everything from weed control, to fungicide application to harvest timing will be a challenge to manage in a timely manner.”

While stand establishment is something most growers are well aware of, deciding whether or not to actively manage it varies. Follings says stand establishment during the 2013 and 2014 growing seasons in Ontario was very challenging and she saw a marked increase in how the start of the 2015 growing season was managed.

“After 2014 a lot of growers looked back at their records and, going into 2015, were more conscious of when and how they seeded,” she says. “They were walking their fields, looking for evenly spaced plants with good populations and well anchored roots. By adjusting their seeding practices, they had better growth stage uniformity which, on top of better weather, helped contribute to a much better start to the growing season.”

While the signs of poor stand establishment vary by crop, compromised yield potential is a common threat. “In wheat, a poor stand is thin, with more tillers that increase your susceptibility to disease,” says Dan Owen, agronomist and product innovation manager with ATP Nutrition in Saskatchewan. “While canola can compensate better than wheat, an uneven canola stand is not a competitive crop when it comes to early weeds. A crop that emerges well will cover the ground quicker, preventing weeds from interfering.”

“In canola, the fewer plants you have, the longer they flower, which means a longer window for heat blasting and sclerotinia development,” says Autumn Barnes, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada in Lethbridge, AB. “If you start with only five plants per square foot, you might lose one to frost, one more may be taken by flea beetles or other pests and you could lose another to hail. That doesn’t leave you much in the end.”

Steve Larocque, a crop consultant and owner of Beyond Agronomy in Three Hills, AB, agrees and adds: “Strong canola stands help outcompete weeds, insects and diseases and allows you to apply crop protection products in a timely manner. And timeliness is key when applying crop inputs because a poorly timed input, like herbicide, can create unnecessary stress. That’s the last thing a crop needs.”

Get canola off to a golden start

  • Properly prepare seeding equipment and continually check it while seeding “The easiest way to make sure everything is working the way you intended is to check your equipment every time you fill the bag,” says Barnes. “Every time you start up again, check for adequate seed depth and density as well as seed and fertilizer separation. This will help ensure you get a good even plant stand with higher crop counts.”
  • Check seeding rates for adequate plant counts The Canola Council of Canada recommends a target of seven to10 plants per square foot. “If you identify what constitutes a good job from the outset it is easier to see if you hit those targets or come up short, and then you understand what changes may be necessary for your next canola rotation,” says Barnes. The starting point for seeding canola is 5 lbs. per acre.If you plan on adjusting this seeding rate, Barnes recommends looking closely at soil temperature. (See for more information about seeding rates.) “If the soil is cold you may need to seed a little heavier to offset plant mortality losses,” she says. “If it’s warm, and the seed bed looks good, you may consider lightening up in that particular field. While growers may need to adjust seeding based on their own schedules and conditions, data shows that the first week of May generally has the best soil temperatures to allow that canola to pop up quickly. Soil temperatures lower than 5°C are too cool for canola.”
  • Consider seeding depth and spacing A well-established crop is generally a uniform crop and the best way to make sure it emerges evenly is to carefully consider seeding depth and spacing. Attention should be given to placing the seed where it needs to go — not too deep, and into the moisture. This could vary from half to three-quarters of an inch deep, depending on the location Production of the moisture. “Even if you have great plant counts, studies have shown that a non-uniform canola stand can reduce yield potential by 20 or 30 per cent,” says Larocque. “Don’t aim for average or just pretty good emergence — you need to shoot for excellence in order to get the kind of stand that results in a high yielding crop.”
  • Slow down With such a short window to seed, there’s naturally a push to get things done quickly. But fast seeding rarely results in a wellspaced, even-depth crop. “I use a GoPro camera mounted to the shank of a drill so I can watch soil flow around the openers at seeding,” says Larocque. “There can be a huge difference in what’s happening at the soil level when you go from 4.3 mph to 5.3 mph It’s hard to go slower, especially when you are dealing with a lot of acres, but having the video evidence can help you fine tune what speed is best.”
  • Manage your trash  While straw management has to be considered the year before, it’s an important part of stand establishment. “I like to make sure the stationary knives in the chopper are out when harvesting wheat or barley,” says Larocque. “That way I’m not chopping straw into one or two inch pieces that I can’t manage after harvest. If I can keep straw length at four to six inches then I know I can manage it with a mid or heavy harrow.”Chopping residue into fine pieces only serves to keep soil cooler for longer, and increase the risk of frost at the ground level,” adds Larocque. “Keeping residue long allows seed shanks to push residue away from the furrow during seeding and help warm up the soil faster.”Particularly in direct seeding operations, soil temperature can be slow to reach optimum levels for rapid establishment if there is residue from the previous crop. “If you seed into colder soil, the canola will germinate when things warm up, but it will be slow,” says Owen. “Cold soil opens your crop up to slower emergence and an increased risk for disease,” he adds.”In 2015, some growers in my area of Saskatchewan seeded their canola the last week of April, but there were serious yield repercussions when we received two late spring frosts leading to a large amount of reseeding,” adds Owen. “As a result, the crop required a longer season to finish, increasing the risk of early fall frost damage
  • Consider nutrition Canola will emerge quicker with a nutritional supplement in the form of a well-balanced nutrient package to help reduce the stress on the germinating seedling, says Owen.However, seedbed utilization is important, especially when dealing with narrow openers on the seeding unit. Make sure that the amount of fertilizer put near the seed does not exceed safe levels or seedling damage may occur. Sometimes, some of the starter blends need to be put through mid-row banders to ensure seed safety.

Aim for a well-anchored wheat stand

  • Get the crop in on time  Whether it’s spring wheat or winter wheat, cereal crops are very responsive to planting dates. “Winter wheat growers will lose 1.1 bushels per acre per day for each day seeding is delayed,” says Follings. “To make up for that, growers may have to increase the seeding rate by 200,000 seeds per acre for each week seeding is delayed. That can start to add up quickly and negatively impact your economics.”While there are also risks to planting wheat early, such as cold soil for spring wheat, or the risk of developing snow mould on winter wheat, Follings says the risks of establishing a good crop are greater when planting wheat late.
  •  Count carefully
    “While 25 to 30 plants per square foot is the recommended plant density, you can really plant wheat at high rates and have a really strong return on your investment,” says Owen. “The winner of our yield competition last year went in at 45 plants per square foot.”Owen suggests calculating your seeding rate based on the thousand kernel weight. “For each wheat plant, you want a single head with four tillers per plant head for a reduced risk of fusarium development, good fill potential, and consistent moisture levels.”Follings adds that a newly seeded wheat crop holds 100 per cent of its yield potential, and plant counts can have a big impact on that potential. “When you have only 10 to 15 plants per square foot you start out the season with 95 per cent of that potential,” she says. “And when you get down to seven plants, your crop potential is at about 90 per cent, and that’s with no other seasonal factors affecting your crop.”
  • Make sure you have adequate spacing  For wheat, that means 10-inch row spacing in order to get good weed control. A well-spaced, uniform wheat field has a higher proportion of fertile plants for increased yield potential. “I usually tell guys to set their drill as wide as possible, which is a good guideline for wheat as well as canola,” says Owen.”Just as important to the number of plants is uniform plant spacing so everything comes up at the same time,” says Barnes. “When everything is uniform you are able to manage the crop as a whole. Weeds will be at the same stage so you often only need a single pass of a herbicide, which is better for time management, budget management and resistance management.”
  • Be aware of seeding depth
    When seeding wheat, the ultimate goal is finding moisture. But if that moisture is more than an inch deep, you can run into problems with stand establishment as the plant uses up most of its energy before it emerges. A depth of one inch helps for early emergence and the rapid development of a secondary root system to help anchor the plant.
    “While you don’t want to go too deep, seeding too shallow can also leave you at risk of rain washing residual herbicides into the furrow,” says Larocque. “So it is important to make sure your crop is in deep enough to be protected, but shallow enough to emerge well.”
  • Use a seed treatment  Wheat tends to be seeded first so it sits in the cool soil longer. This puts it at greater risk for seed- and soil-borne disease. “The greatest potential your crop has is when it is still in the bag,” says Owen. “A seed starts losing potential as soon as you plant it. Seed treatments will help you protect that potential before it goes in the ground.””In order to get plants that are well anchored you need to have good root systems,” adds Follings. “A seed treatment will reduce seed rot and seedling blight, and will help protect vulnerable seedlings for up to two weeks after that plant has emerged, which can get it past some of those early season stressors.”
  • Know your soil profile  Understand your soil nutrient levels when considering how to get as solid a stand as possible. “For example, if your soil test is showing less than 20 pounds of phosphorus per acre, you want to make sure the phosphorus is in the seed row,” says Larocque. “Adequate levels of seed-placed phosphorus are critical for that initial pop up effect. Also, as we push to higher yields and nitrogen rates, we can’t ignore sulphur in wheat fertility programs.”
  • Choose good quality seed, and check germination  Particularly with bin-run seed, have it checked for germination rates and the presence of disease. Wheat seed can have a mortality rate of up to 30 per cent so make sure you are putting down enough seed to address germination issues, mortality and still maintain plant counts.  “Variety selection is important for wheat growers, and growers should look to their specific needs when choosing a variety,” says Follings. “You should be looking at performance trials for different varieties in different areas to find a seed that works with your location, insect issues, disease and lodging profiles.”
  • Experience brings growth Careful record keeping can help you establish a benchmark for your fields so you can make adjustments in your next rotation of that crop. “Count plants once they have emerged, write everything down, compare it with your yield data and make a decision for the next year,” says Barnes.”Getting a good stand establishment is really the most important thing you can do for your canola crop all season,” she says. “Problems at seeding are very hard to overcome throughout the growing season, so making sure you’re doing things right from the beginning is the best thing you can do all season long.”