Aside from test plots at Walsh, Lamar and Genoa, Colorado State University’s 15 statewide variety trials look promising, according to agronomy officials who wrapped up a series of field days about a month prior to harvest.
“We have lots of decent trials this year, but we always have a few that aren’t so good,” said CSU wheat breeder Scott Haley.
While some wheat has been lost to winterkill or late season snowstorms, most of the poor plots are due to an extremely dry fall that impeded stand establishment, he said.
That was the case on the plains northeast of Genoa, where farmer Ross Hansen hosts a variety trial.
“This field is very inconsistent,” Hansen said during the field day at his farm. “Some of it didn’t come up until this spring. But we’ll go ahead and harvest it.”
He called it his “betting land”: he’s betting the yield will come in higher than what the insurance adjuster appraised it at.
“This is my Cripple Creek,” he joked.
He predicted it would yield 20 to 25 bushels to the acre despite thin, uneven plants.
Rick Novak, director of seed programs at CSU, predicted it would end up closer to 30 bushels to the acre.
“Thinner wheat often has higher test weights,” he said. “That’s something we’re seeing in southeastern Colorado, too. The thinner stands have some exceptionally long wheat heads in them.”
Just one mile west, Hansen had another field that was lush and thick and likely to yield closer to 40 bushels. The only difference between the two fields was a single rain shower.
Spray rigs could be seen running in the area, but Hansen said with borderline yield potential he had decided not to apply a fungicide even though he was seeing stripe rust moving in. In part, he was gambling hotter temperatures would suppress disease spread.
Steve Beedy, who farms north of Hansen’s place, made the opposite decision. He ran the numbers and concluded $2 an acre for a ground application was worth it. Still, he wasn’t all that excited about his yield prospects either.
“Conditions are very challenging for this area right now,” he said.
From Texas to northeast Colorado, wheat diseases have been a big story in wheat country this year.
During the tour, CSU plant pathologist Kirk Broders held up a sample leaf covered with yellow streaks and what looked like black ink spots. He said it showed a trifecta of stripe rust, wheat streak mosaic and bacterial leaf streak, or black chaff, which are a fungal disease, a viral disease and a bacterial infection, respectively.
“This is what happens when you get moisture,” he said, adding that it took him back to his graduate days at Ohio State University where wheat diseases are always a serious threat.
Further south wheat streak mosaic infections are usually spread in the fall, but in northeastern Colorado they tend to happen during the spring, Broders noted.
“It is at record levels this year in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado,” he said. “It’s probably due to the extended fall period we had and the surprising build-up of the curl-mite population.”
“We saw some fall infection last year, which is somewhat rare, and then we saw a tremendous mite population blow in this spring,” he added. “These are microscopic bugs, but we are learning they can migrate further than we previously thought.”
Little can be done to combat a warm, dry fall that provides the perfect environment for insects, Novak said. But he also told growers they could improve their prospects by planting only certified seed and treating it first.
Seed treatments won’t help with mites but do defend plants against aphids and aid in root development.
“There are lots of options to treat seed so there’s really no excuse not to do it,” he said.
CSU area agronomist Ron Meyer, who is based at Burlington, said treating seed wheat became more common after a disastrous infection of stinking smut hit Phillips County three years ago. It left grain so damaged it had no residual value. Unusually wet weather was a contributing factor.
“You couldn’t even feed it,” Meyer said. “A seed treatment fixes all of those smut-related problems. For a dollar an acre, that’s pretty good insurance.”
In southeastern Colorado, John Stulp, of Lamar, said he hoped CSU would go ahead and harvest even the marginal plots.
“I always say I learn more in the bad years than I do in the good years. In the good years, all of the varieties look good,” he said.
In Burlington, the plot was lush, thick — and muddy — the day agronomists and farmers toured it.
An El Nino weather pattern has been dumping rain across most of the High Plains. Despite forecasts calling for an extended period of hotter, drier weather, Hansen was hopeful the overall rainy trend would continue.
“A lot of spring crops are being planted on failed wheat acres around here,” he said.