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Illinois wheat growers break yield record

Illinois wheat growers break yield record

Wheat field

Illinois yield contest winners discussed their strategies, such as never planting after corn, at the recent Illinois Wheat Association Double Crop Forum.

Illinois wheat producers rewrote the record book this year.

The estimated average yield of 79 bushels per acre is up 17% from 2020 and is the highest in history, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“It was a fun harvest,” said Matt Wehmeyer of AgriMAXX Seed. “We had a wonderful crop.”

Several factors teamed up to provide growers with the bountiful harvest, beginning with planting.

“We had good stands in the fall and we had good tillering,” Wehmeyer said. “Weather was definitely a factor. Consistency from field to field was probably the best we’ve ever seen. We checked every box.”

The previous yield record was 76 bushels per acre in 2017. Last year’s yield was 68 bushels per acre.

John Howell, who farms in Monroe County, was pleased this year.

“Our wheat crop was certainly well above average. It was close to a record crop,” he said. “Farm average was a shade above 100. Some fields yielded 115 to 120.”

Ben Zelasko, who farms near Tamaroa in Jefferson County, also had a good year.

“The wheat was the best I’ve ever had,” he said.

Price may have contributed to the success. Farmers were more willing to manage their crops intensively knowing they could likely make some extra money. Most winter wheat in Illinois is grown in a double-crop system with soybeans.

“With good fertility practices and high-priced wheat, a lot of guys invested in fungicides, which enhances yield and protects grain quality,” Wehmeyer said.

As is usually the case, weather played a major role in the high yields. The majority of wheat in Illinois is grown in the southern portion of the state, which often experiences hot, humid conditions. But conditions favored wheat in 2021.

“Probably the cooler temperatures helped more even than the rains,” Wehmeyer said. “Wheat likes cool weather, and we had a very cool period during grain fill. We did not have a ton of rain during grain fill. Test weights were phenomenal, and yields were phenomenal.”

According to NASS, Illinois wheat producers harvested 610,000 acres, up 17% from the previous year. Production is estimated at 48.2 million bushels, a 36% increase over 2020.

“Head counts were perfect and stand quality was excellent,” Wehmeyer said. “The size was bigger than normal of a lot of the seed wheat that we conditioned and sold. There were a lot of factors that contributed to this success. It was not necessarily an intensive management approach, but an intentional management approach.”

As with corn and soybeans, wheat yields have climbed over the years. Howell can attest to that, as a member of a multi-generational farm family.

“We’ve had wheat in our rotation as long as I can remember,” he said. “My grandpa is 85 and he talks about 50 to 60 bushels per acre being a good yield. Whole-field averages being double that is really something.

“It seems like wheat is a crop that responds the most to management, whether using fungicide or splitting nitrogen treatments.”

The success of the crop along with good prices had the potential of ushering in an increase in acreage. But untimely precipitation around planting time may have put a dent in that.

“We went into the fall with the hopes and ambitions of expanded acreage,” Wehmeyer said. “Sales were record, interest was record. We had growers who had left wheat five or 10 years ago coming back into the wheat market, with the prices and guys hearing yields other growers were getting.

“Early plantings went well, then we got wet in October. I think the wetness we’ve had in addition to the skyrocketing fertilizer prices took the top end of acres off a little bit. I would say acreage will be flat to a tick above last year.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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