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Chasing a Bin-Busting Wheat Crop

Say it IS so, Joe.

In early spring, when Alec Horton stood in the silt loam of his western Kansas wheat fields and saw substantial tillers and muscled heads filling in, he knew the yield could be special. No backing off from fungicides or insecticides - it was time to push and manage for big yields with "Joe," a white wheat variety from the Kansas Wheat Alliance (KWA).

Horton begins every wheat crop aiming for 100 bu. per acre dryland yield through seed treatments, proper seeding rates, tiller promotion, vegetative growth reduction and moisture conservation. However, he didn’t foresee a 121.48-bushel bin-buster in the cards when he planted Joe in the fall of 2015.

Wheat fields looked increasingly strong in May 2016, as Horton got paperwork ready for the Kansas Wheat Yield Contest. In truth, Horton’s signature on the application form was representative of a Horton Seed Services team effort, the family Certified Seed Wheat business in Leoti, Kan., including Horton’s father, Ken, and brothers, Rick and Matt. Horton, 24, insists he’s just a cog in the machine

“My name was on the entry sheet, but my entire family hit 121,” he says.

The Hortons follow a wheat, grain sorghum and fallow rotation on ground ranging between 16” to 22” of topsoil. The profile equates to 2” of moisture per foot of soil, and in fall of 2015, the profile was relatively moisture-packed going into wheat planting. On Sept. 25, topsoil was beginning to bake, but 3.5” down, moisture was waiting as Horton planted Joe on fallow acreage, starting clean of volunteer wheat to avoid increased chances of disease and pest infestations.

“Joe’s yield data from the past three years is phenomenal,” he says. “We liked its stripe rust package and were really impressed by its wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) resistance.”

Every seed Horton plants is treated with Vibrance Extreme fungicide, and Revize Imida St insecticide. With most wheat varieties, Horton uses a planting rate between 500,000 to 650,000 seeds per acre. With Joe, Horton dropped down to 375,000 seeds per acre (28 lbs. per acre), aiming to blow up the new variety and push for more total bushels. With the lower seeding rate, the Joe initially appeared thin, but it wasn’t a point of concern and the 10”-row stand looked robust heading into winter.

“As long as a stand looks good, we leave it alone until spring and then topdress nitrogen in February and run a herbicide application to hit weeds coming out of dormancy," Horton says. "Resistant kochia and pigweed are always a problem, but our rotation really helps with weed control."

The Hortons apply 5 tons of conditioned manure every third season. The manure is spread after wheat and incorporated by rain into the ground to provide nutrients for grain sorghum and the next wheat crop in the three-year cycle. Soil samples showed the Joe needed 35 to 40 lbs. of additional liquid nitrogen to align with the 100 bu. target, but Horton added 90 lbs. in February to promote tiller growth and ensure the crop wouldn’t hunger for nitrogen.

“The Hortons have an excellent foundation on their fertility program,” says A.J. Foster, an Extension agronomist and crops and soil specialist with Kansas State University Extension. “They start with good fertility and pay attention to detail.”

“We do load up with our fertility program,” Rick adds. “Manure and extra nitrogen are so important. Also, fungicides are critical, especially at the right time, particularly when head size is determined.”

Joe was treated with Horton’s typical double fungicide spring application. The first is made three weeks prior to jointing, and the second goes on after the flag leaf was fully out and exposed. The management recipe included Priaxor, Monsoon and Azoxy Star fungicides, Ravage insecticide, and Rave herbicide.

Typically, Horton grows red wheat, and prior to Joe, grew Antero, a white variety from Colorado State University.

“Antero has done really, really well for us in the past,” he says. “The only negative was a lack of good WSMV resistance and it affected yield.”

A base yield target for Horton Seed Services is 70 bu. per acre, but in drier years with 10-12” of rain, wheat yields can dip to 40 bu. to 50 bu. per acre. However, in 2016, yields climbed over 90 bu. per acre across the farm, with several varieties faring well. LCS Pistol, TAM 112, and WB-Grainfield were excellent, according to Horton.

“LCS Pistol yielded 114.01 bu. per acre and looked great right from the start," he says. "TAM 112 has strong mosaic resistance and is tough and dependable, especially in drought years. WB-Grainfield does a remarkable job of making and filling big heads.”

In late June, an Extension agent measured off plots, hopped in a combine with Rick, and headed into a field of Joe. When the yield monitor bounced to 122 and 123, suspicions of an exceptional crop were justified.

“It was so awesome," Horton says. "There’s so much great wheat in farms around us and we didn’t expect to win, but we were really excited."

Beyond the 121.48 Western Region winning tally - the highest total in contest history, in fact - the high yield confirmed the management efforts of Horton Seed Services.

“We’re on the right track with the way we’re thinking about how to push varieties and get the most out of every wheat crop,” Horton says.

What lessons will Horton carry into next season?

“We might start applying extra nitrogen topdress to promote tiller growth in thin stands when we think we’ve got moisture to sustain tillers," he says. "We’ll also continue applying fungicides three weeks prior to jointing and flag leaf."

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