Craig Finke inspects heads on wheat plants

Craig Finke inspects heads on wheat plants in a field in Washington County. Like many growers, Finke experienced some freeze damage when temperatures dropped in April.

Illinois wheat growers are cautiously optimistic about a crop that holds some promise.

“So far the wheat is looking pretty decent other than being a little shorter than normal this year,” said Dave Droste, who farms near Nashville in Washington County. “There were a lot of late seedings last fall. It didn’t get the fast start it normally gets. But flowering has been completed on my crop.”

Droste anticipates that harvest will take place in the middle of June, the normal time for his farm in southern Illinois.

While the annual wheat tour didn’t take place as usual this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, several groups of farmers, millers and agronomists did make some sweeps of fields in more than a dozen counties. Tour participants use tiller counts and general observations to estimate yields, and this year the preliminary average was about 66.5 bushels per acre.

County yield average estimates ranged from a 55 bushels per acre to 93 bushels.

“We don’t know about quality yet, but the potential is there,” said Talon Becker, a University of Illinois Extension educator.

Anecdotally, there seemed to be no major disease problems as the crop matured in early June.

“Wheat overall is looking pretty darn good,” Becker said. “I didn’t see any scab. There was some stripe rust in Marion County, but not a lot.”

Gerry Rottmann, an agronomist who works in southwestern Illinois, acknowledged some issues with the wheat. But he doesn’t expect major problems.

“There is some scab in the wheat and some glume blotch,” he said. “When you get this much rain, you’re bound to have some disease.”

Craig Finke, who farms in Washington County, has some disease in his wheat fields, but he doesn’t believe damage is widespread.

“There are a lot of white heads in it, and a lot of it curls a little bit,” Finke said. “There’s a combination of scab and frost damage.”

Matt Wehmeyer was among those who took part in the scaled-down wheat tour. He saw scattered disease and also some freeze damage in some fields.

“There was freeze damage evident, particularly on the early planted fields,” Wehmeyer said. “Some of the disease spectrum is similar to previous years. We are seeing a little bit of stripe rust scattered out through the southern half of the state. I’m hoping it came too late to cause much damage.”

Droste believes disease treatments are responsible for improved yields and quality year after year. Many growers have committed to fungicide applications regardless of whether disease is present.

“We spray our wheat with fungicides for head scab. It also helped control stripe rust,” he said. “We didn’t realize it when we sprayed it, but it does show it controls it. I didn’t see any signs of stripe rust. The variety I plant has good tolerance anyway.”

He anticipates decent yields.

“With it being shorter than normal, right now I’m expecting average or a little more than average crop,” Droste said.

Rottmann pointed to reports of extensive disease pressure in some fields.

“I’ve heard third-hand that there was stripe rust in Bond County, but haven’t seen a lot,” he said. “There’s going to be some scab. Guys did some spraying but didn’t all get scab fungicides on at right time because of the weather. It’s always a timing problem.”

Despite scattered issues, most growers expect at least an average crop this year.

“We did notice there was more freeze damage this year than in years past, which we expected,” Wehmeyer said.

“Leaf diseases were present but moderate. There was fusarium head blight popping up, which is typical. But overall I believe it’s going to be a decent crop, though there are areas hit by extreme weather events.”

Rottmann agrees.

“Is it an unmitigated disaster? No,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have a bumper yield, but we have some decent-looking wheat.”

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