Planting wheat (copy)

Planting depth is crucial when planting wheat. Planting too shallow makes seedlings more vulnerable to dry fall conditions, winterkill and heaving in the spring.

A record cold start to April kept many producers out of the field, and while many farmers missed the best dates for planting spring wheat, there are ways to help bolster yields this year.

The first week in April is the optimal time for producers in South Dakota to plant, according to Grant Mehring, a technical product manager for Monsanto WestBred wheat. Mehring is based in Fargo, North Dakota, and provides advice for growers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

“We are starting off behind,” he said.

Nationwide, just 2 percent of the spring wheat crop was planted as the first week in April came to a close, and most of that was in Washington and southern Idaho, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop progress report. Last year at that time when temperatures were warmer, South Dakota had 21 percent of its spring wheat in the ground.

Mehring said it’s not too worrisome to plant later, and it’s not a big deal if the crop gets covered in snow once it’s planted. He recalled the spring of 2013, which brought some late snows in the middle of April. By the third week of April 2013, just 6 percent of the spring wheat crop was seeded in South Dakota. This time of year, snow melts quickly and soil can warm up quickly, too, he said, adding that spring wheat can handle some cold.

“It’s very hardy,” he said.

The last planting date recommended is the first week of May. After that date, the odds are likely that grain yield and test weight will be hurt by heat stress, University of Minnesota small grains specialist Jochum Wiersma wrote in the Crop News Blog. Researched showed yields decreased 1 percent per day when planting is delayed past the optimum planting date, he said.

Farmer David Struck doesn’t expect to get into his fields around Wolsey, South Dakota, before May 1 this year. After the mid-April snow storm that dropped 14 inches of snow in his area, he said he decided not to plant any spring wheat this year.

“Our window to plant spring wheat closed,” he said.

Last year by mid-April, his spring wheat was 2 inches tall, he said. If he’s unable to plant by April 15, the crop will flower at the wrong time and he’ll lose yields. He said he’ll try again next year for spring wheat.

As a cool season grass, wheat grows best in cooler temperatures, Mehring explained. Growth takes off when the soil reaches 40 degrees. It’s best if the plant does its growing early in the season before summer heat sets in. Those early stages will determine how many grain heads the plant will have.

Wheat tillers once the plant has three or four leaves, Mehring said, and each tiller can produce a grain head. Warmer temperatures can cause the plant to form fewer tillers.

Growers can compensate by increasing their seed population at planting time. Mehring suggested increasing seeding rates by 1 to 1.5 percent per day based on your farm’s typical planting date.

If growers have the option of swapping their seed for a shorter maturing variety, it could help if extreme temperatures come during the grain filling stages, he said.

To help the crop along this season, Mehring suggested applying nitrogen as soon as the snow is off the field.

“The earlier you can get nitrogen put on there, the best chance you’ll have for optimal yields,” he said.

Wheat production in South Dakota has been declining in recent years as producers favor planting their fields to profitable corn and soybeans. At the end of March, though, farmers said they expected to plant slightly more acres of spring wheat this year. Planting intentions totaled 1.05 million acres, up 8 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Last year’s drought was hard on wheat producers. The band of counties in central South Dakota that produce the most wheat were also the areas hit hardest by drought.

Many producers abandoned their crop, choosing not to harvest the wheat for grain. That reflected in the year’s production statistics. Spring wheat production was down 56 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Winter wheat production was down an estimated 67 percent.

Yields suffered, too. Spring wheat yields averaged 31 bushels per acre, down 14 bushels from 2016. It was a similar story for winter wheat with yields of 40 bpa, down 18 bushels from the year before.

Some good news that came with South Dakota’s mid-April snow storm was that the snow helped add moisture to soils in drought-stressed areas.

Parts of central South Dakota were abnormally dry before the storm, and parts of western South Dakota were listed under severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, but snow helps.

“It definitely delays our planting, but it does add to soil moisture,” Mehring said.

As for winter wheat, South Dakota’s crop went without the insulating snow cover for much of the season. Mehring said soil temperatures didn’t get to a worrisome level that would kill the dormant crop, but he worries about the cold spring.

“It’s getting less hardy and less able to handle cool soil temperatures,” he said. “I get worried we will see some late winter kill.”

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor


Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska.