Winter wheat deserves a second look

Across the prairies, winter wheat has been one of the top income-producing crops for the past several years in a row. But even with this income potential and winter wheats’ many other benefits — yield advantage over spring wheat, a surplus of available markets and a great tool to fight herbicide resistance — why have seeded acres remained neutral?

“There are a lot of misconceptions about winter wheat and those are behind why growers may choose not to seed it,” says Paul Thoroughgood, regional agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada. “Many growers think they can’t seed in time in the fall, and much of this can be attributed to recent prolonged harvest seasons that have afforded little time to seed before winter sets it,” he explains. “Growers can always find a way to get the crop in — whether that’s in the fall or spring. Seeding in the fall does take planning but once growers do it that first year, it almost always becomes part of their rotation.”

Over the past few years, warmer than average winters have resulted in reduced, or even no snow cover in many areas on the prairies. Many winter wheat growers are under the assumption that snow cover helps to prevent winter kill. However, it’s not the snow, it’s the ground temperature that protects the crop over the winter months, says Thoroughgood. On average, winter-kill rates in Canada hover around nine per cent, on par with much warmer areas, such as Kansas, which is the largest producer of winter wheat in North America.

“Warm winters are both a blessing and a curse for winter wheat,” says Thoroughgood. “On the plus side our winters recently have been more like those in areas where winter wheat is the norm and spring sown wheat the exception. We grow varieties that are more winter hardy than areas like Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota, which should mean excellent winter survival.

“On the negative side, some diseases, such as stripe rust, appear to be overwintering during warmer years,” he says. “Presence of stripe rust in the fall may not necessarily mean infection in the spring, particularly in resistant varieties. Growers need to check new leaves for the development of rust pustules. If rust infection is confirmed in spring, then fungicide applications may need to occur earlier than usual.”

One of the biggest challenges for winter wheat growers is marketing it to its full potential. While it is easy to find buyers, it is not generally as simple as hauling it to the local elevator immediately after harvest. But Thoroughgood says there are some things that growers don’t always consider when marketing winter wheat.

“First, growers often overlook feed markets for milling markets, which are seen as the most desirable,” he says. But growers looking for quick cash can move their wheat off the combine into feed or ethanol markets, as supplies, just after harvest, are usually very low. “Yes, the price is a little lower than milling markets, but the yield gains from a well-managed winter wheat crop still mean a solid return on investment.”

In addition, Thoroughgood says that if growers are watching the spot prices on wheat carefully, sometimes winter wheat and spring wheat prices will be near par if growers are willing to wait to move their product. Most prairie mills will seek out winter wheat due to its blending strength and high-flour yield, which allows them to get more flour out of a tonne of grain. Given the higher yield expectations from winter wheat, growers can still achieve a good return even if they have to haul their crop a little further.

Brian Wittal, owner of ProCom Marketing in Didsbury, AB, says there are markets for all types of winter wheat but they can be dependent on volumes. “Often growers don’t have enough milling-quality wheat to fill a rail car, so they end up trucking it directly to the mills,” he explains. “This can still be very cost effective when you have highquality, high-yielding winter wheat. But that demand changes from year to year, so growers need to be in constant contact with the end customer to make sure they need what you have to offer.”

Transportation may prove to be one the biggest hurdles winter wheat growers face when marketing their wheat, says Wittal. “They have to be willing to move the product to where the customers are located.” But winter wheats’ longer growing season usually means decent yields, so growers can still achieve a high return on their investment, he says.

The recent decline in the Canadian dollar has opened up more markets in the northern U.S., adds Wittal. While these areas always welcomed Canadian product, the incentive wasn’t there before. Today, growers are able to offset the costs of transporting their grain to U.S. consumers by selling their grain in U.S. dollars and taking advantage of the exchange rate.

“The key with winter wheat is being patient if you want to get the best prices,” says Wittal. “The markets are there — be it the U.S., other prairie provinces or even into B.C. Once you know the quality of your crop, there is almost always a way to sell it that works if you are willing to look at different options.”

Winter wheat remains a crop with profit and agronomic potential that should outweigh any grower concerns. “If we are talking about climate change or climate variability, the value of having a crop that’s different has never been greater,” says Thoroughgood. “All of our spring crops are dependent on the same time window for seeding, herbicide and disease management, flowering and harvest. When you take part of your crop out of the traditional spring-summer cycle, you have a backup for your growing season.”

Winter wheat can also be an important herbicide resistance management tool. “Fall seeding leads to earlier stand establishment in the spring, which often outcompetes weeds, including resistant biotypes,” says Thoroughgood. “Herbicide applications in winter wheat also occur much earlier than spring sown crops, providing a different selection pressure on weed communities. So by choking out weeds, or getting ahead of grassy weeds, we can either change how much herbicide we need to use, or alter when that herbicide is applied.”

Variety development is improving, too, with agronomic packages designed to deliver top performance. For the eastern prairies, particularly in the Red River Valley, AC Emerson is a fusarium resistant variety recently introduced to the market. AAC Gateway is a shorter variety that’s a solid choice for highyielding environments. In the brown and black soil zones, new milling varieties such as Moats and AAC Elevate have a stronger disease package to replace previous high-performing varieties such as CDC Buteo and Radiant.

There are also new varieties developed for specific markets, such as Pintail — a good general purpose variety suitable for the ethanol market. There are also several new varieties currently under multiplication, including a new hard white for milling markets.

Far from a secondary performer, intensively managed winter wheat has been achieving higher yields than its spring-seeded counterpart. In recent years, winter wheat has had a 15 to 40 per cent yield advantage over spring wheat, with average yields clocking in 25 per cent higher than spring wheat. While winter wheat requires a bump in fertility, when the crop performs, the economics still work out. “I would encourage all growers to consider winter wheat in their rotation,” says Thoroughgood.