Peering over the fence to check out a neighbor’s farming practices is a common—though perhaps not  totally honorable—method of improving yields. Since 2016, the National Wheat Yield Contest has provided just such a peek into the fields of the top wheat growers in the nation—and the opportunity comes without any remorse. 

The contest was launched by the National Wheat Foundation in 2015 to shake wheat producers out of the doldrums brought on by stagnant yields, low prices and declining acreage. The effort hasn’t yet reversed those fortunes, but it has  raised awareness of new and innovative production techniques. By fine-tuning proven practices and introducing new ones, winning growers are shattering the myth that wheat can’t compete The highest yield in the 2018 contest topped 202 bushels per acre under irrigation while dryland yields in both the spring and winter wheat categories soared above 120 bushels for several contestants.

“Wheat acreage is declining for a number of reasons and a lack of significant gains in productivity is certainly one,” says Burley, Idaho, farmer Wayne Hurst, who serves as chairman of the National Wheat Foundation. “The wheat yield contest offers growers a chance to compete with their peers across the country and learn from each other the innovative techniques that can improve wheat productivity and increase their success.”

The 2016 harvest was the first under the contest and 170 farmers entered. Interest has since grown to 278 entries in 2017 and 318 entries last year. Winners are named at both the state and national levels in winter and spring wheat categories and irrigated and dryland divisions. Entries are ranked for the highest overall yield as well as the percentage by which they exceed the five-year olympic average yield for their county. While the contest has revealed top yields of over 200 bushels per acre, it has also revealed producers who are exceeding their county average yields by more than 400%. Go to www.wheatfoundation.org for more information on past winners of the National Wheat Yield Contest and to follow it in 2019.

Closing a yield gap. Prior to the National Wheat Yield Contest, the Kansas Wheat Commission was conducting their own state-wide contest. Open to dryland producers only, the contest ran from 2010 until it was combined with the national effort in 2018. The contest also revealed an amazing gap between state-wide average yields and yields from the more intensively-managed contest fields. Top yields reached a high of 123.8 bushels per acre in 2017—when the state average was only 48 bushels-. Winning yields ranged from 215% to 315% above state averages through the eight-year period. This disparity drew the attention of Kansas State University extension wheat specialist Romulo Lollato.

Rick Horton finished first in the state and third nationally in the 2018 National Wheat Yield Contest

“We evaluated the production practices used on 100 fields entered in the Kansas Wheat Yield contest between 2010 an 2017 and concluded there were lessons to be learned from fields managed for the contest that could benefit all producers,” says Lollato.

The study determined the average yield of the 100 contest fields was 82 bushels per acre (shown on the preceding page). “We compared the use of 23 different management practices on the entries yielding above average to those yielding below. Those most often associated with high yields were variety selection; phosphate fertilizer in-furrow; no-till; canola or corn as a previous crop; and foliar fungicide (depending on varietal resistance),” says Lollato.

Seeding rate was a surprise in the analysis—high yields were associated with low seeding rates, which is contrary to popular thought. “This occurred because the highest yielding entries were seeded at a low rate. This is a unique approach, but it works if the crop is planted early so there is time to tiller and there is abundant water and nutrients for tiller formation and survival,” says Lollato.

Ken Horton and sons Rick, Alec and Matt of Horton Seed Services in Leoti, Kansas, are repeat winners in both yield contests. Ken placed first nationally in the 2018 irrigated winter wheat division growing WB Cedar and Rick third in the dryland division with PlainsGold Langin. Their plan begins with manure applied prior to a corn crop that precedes wheat.

“If the corn yield was high you have to replace a lot of nutrients. We take soil samples after the wheat is up to determine how much nitrogen is available and what we’ll need to finish the crop. Nitrogen is applied in early winter,” says Rick.

“Our low seeding rate is about balancing the number of tillers and the head size with the variety. We plant around 400,000 seeds per acre depending on a variety’s ability to tiller. Our goal is to maximize fall tillers and then make sure fertility is in the root zone prior to jointing. If moisture is available in the spring we get a high yield because the tillers finish, but there’s less threat of lodging. If it’s dry then the stress burns off tillers so there’s less yield loss than if you plant heavier and the primary and secondary heads are stressed,” says Rick.

Seed treatments are a ‘no brainer’ for the Hortons, as is the use of foliar fungicides—even on resistant varieties. “We apply the first fungicide either just before or just after jointing and the second one at the flag leaf stage. We always get some response and high-yielding varieties typically respond the most. We’ll use an insecticide if scouting reveals insects are present and the number of beneficials is low.”

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