Illinois wheat crop has good potential

Winter wheat grows above the snow in this Douglas County field. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

The condition of the winter wheat crop improved significantly in Illinois since farmers wrapped up planting last fall.

The portion of the crop rated good to excellent improved from just 30% as of Nov. 27 to 69% on Jan. 30, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Illinois field office reported. The rest of the crop is currently rated 25% fair and 6% poor to very poor.

“Some got planted late, but thankfully we got moisture,” Mark Krausz, Clinton County farmer and president of the Illinois Wheat Association (IWA), said at the Double Crop Forum in Mt. Vernon. “I think it’s in pretty good shape.”

Precipitation averaged 2.67 inches statewide from Jan. 1-29, which was .89 inches above normal, while the average temperature during that time (35.2 degrees) was 10.4 degrees above normal, NASS reported.

“There’s a lot of questions if wheat ever went dormant (in southern Illinois),” Krausz said. “The wheat’s been green pretty much all fall (and through the first two-thirds of winter).”

Management key to better yields, quality

While farmers can’t do anything about the weather, there’s certainly plenty of factors they can control in their fields to achieve the best possible returns with a double crop combination of wheat and soybeans.

A panel of farmers discussed some of their intensive management practices during the event.

“We always look for ways to increase yields,” said Brian Prest, a first-generation farmer from Marissa who farms in Perry, Randolph, St. Clair and Washington counties.

“For populations, we set a target goal of 42 (wheat) seeds per square foot,” he noted. “We usually try to plant wheat by Oct. 20. If it’s later than that, we often bump up the seeding rate.”

Grant LaForge, who farms near New Holland in Logan County, also said getting a quality stand in the fall is critical for wheat. He won the 2022 IWA wheat contest with a top entry of 142.8 bushels per acre.

“I plant awfully thick. I normally want 2 million seeds up (per acre),” LaForge said. “All my wheat is drilled (in 7.5-inch rows). If you can get 80- to 100-bushel wheat and 45- to 50-bushel double crop beans, it works well.”

LaForge, Prest and Scott Ebelhar, of Peterson Farms in Kentucky, all use multiple fertilizer applications on their wheat, ranging from 120 to 150 total nitrogen units, along with micronutrients.

They also utilize fungicides to manage crop diseases.

“I wouldn’t grow wheat without a fungicide application at flowering,” Ebelhar said. “For variety selection, we focus on high-yielding, high-quality wheat.”

Wheat quality and test weights are vital on Peterson Farms in Kentucky as all the wheat and corn grown on the operation is sourced by the state’s bourbon industry.

“We start harvest at 22% (crop moisture),” Ebelhar said. “We do everything in our power to get it off as timely as possible to maintain test weight and quality.”

A timely wheat harvest is also critical for double-crop beans. The bean yields can decline about a half-bushel for each day planting is delayed.

“One of the big things (to also get the beans off to a good start) is to manage the straw,” Prest said. “We grow high-yielding wheat, so there’s a lot of straw. We throw it as even as we can out the combine chopper.”

LaForge said he cuts his wheat as high as possible to also reduce the amount of straw that winds up in the following seedbed for soybeans.

“Most growers have some of their own storage and intend to dry some (wheat) every year. They’re chasing quality,” said Chad Lee, director of the Grain and Forage Center at the University of Kentucky. “Wheat in the rotation also improves soil structure and soil tilth.”

As for planting populations for double crop beans, Lee recommends farmers shoot for about 140,000 plants per acre.