Getting winter wheat back on track

Insurance coverage for later seeding could help reverse the acreage decline

For many years, Prairie producers have heard about the advantages of winter wheat — high yields, less disease and weed pressure and early harvest. It’s also more duck-friendly — there’s no spring tillage to disturb their nests.

That’s the pitch, but in recent years farmers haven’t been buying it. Statistics Canada reports Prairie winter wheat acreage has been on a downward spiral for several years, hitting a modern low of 145,400 acres in 2019 compared to 675,000 in 2015. That latter number pales against the over 1.5 million acres planted in 2008.

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Winter wheat has always been a hard sell compared to spring wheat — lower price and crop insurance coverage are two factors. But is there anything new that accounts for the recent decline? Experts single out poor weather in recent years as one possibility. Another is later canola harvests — its stubble is the preferred seedbed for winter wheat.

Some outside-the-box thinking may be required to reverse the decline, say two researchers with the AAFC Lethbridge Research Centre in Alberta. Perhaps the biggest change is questioning the traditional August and September winter wheat seeding window. Agronomy researcher Brian Beres says it may be more flexible than generally thought.

“It’s not the end of the world if you didn’t plant on September 7 or whenever your ideal planting date was. Yes, there can be (yield) reductions once you get in past October 1 but it may not be the train wreck everybody thinks it could be.”

New and improved varieties should also increase the appeal of this underrated crop to both farmers and end-users, says winter wheat breeder Rob Graf.

“Over the years we have certainly been doing a number of things to try to increase the attractiveness of winter wheat. We’ve done a lot to improve agronomics and disease resistance.”

Challenges and solutions

It’s easy to pin winter wheat’s woes on the weather — some recent falls have been either too wet for seeding or too dry for germination. But other factors are at play. Graf says spring wheat developers have done a really good job of pushing its yields, reducing winter wheat’s relative appeal.

Rob Graf.
photo: Supplied

“Producers, particularly in the past few years, are saying, ‘Well, winter wheat isn’t giving me the type of bushels I’m used to relative to red spring, because of the better price of red spring… and without the hassle of having to get everything ready for fall seeding.’”

New high-yielding varieties such as AAC Wildfire may help winter wheat regain its profile. Released by SeCan in 2018, Wildfire became the number one winter wheat grown in Alberta in 2019. Graf says Wildfire has a lot going for it, especially yield.

The eastern Prairies, however, are not feeling the heat from Wildfire due to its susceptibility to stem rust, he says. “Eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba are considered the stem rust-prone zone in Western Canada and I would rather farmers not grow a stem rust-susceptible variety in those areas.”

Another challenge is a change in canola management. Its stubble is considered the best seedbed for giving winter wheat protection as it emerges in the fall. But canola harvest is extending further into the season, and that has a tendency to edge out winter wheat seeding, says Beres.

“One thing facing the traditional sequencing of a crop of winter wheat is the fact that the canola crop varieties today — in search of higher yields — have fairly significantly longer growing degree day requirements. As a consequence, producers are harvesting canola later in the fall, which makes the logistics of planting winter wheat difficult.”

Graf says the trend toward straight-cut canola is also a factor. “We are seeing canola hybrids that have anti-shattering characteristics so producers can straight cut. So because producers aren’t swathing, crop dry-down is taking longer.”

Insurance for later seeding?

Beres says another challenge is winter wheat’s traditional seeding window. Depending on the area, planting is between the end of August and the third week of September, with specific dates frequently attached to insurance deadlines.

A Prairie-wide research project has revealed that winter wheat can thrive beyond that timeline. Between 2014 and 2017, Yvonne Lawley of the University of Manitoba directed the seeding of winter wheat in 13 locations across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It was planted in intervals between August and November 1. All soil zones were represented.

Winter wheat is especially friendly to Northern Pintail ducks — their numbers are reduced due to their tendency to nest where they are disturbed by spring fieldwork.
photo: Ducks Unlimited Canada

“It spanned across not only all the different scenarios of crop insurance deadlines but also the real biological realities of when you can plant,” says Beres, who commissioned the project.

The results surprised the researchers. “It showed that even in Manitoba, where it can be difficult to get (winter wheat seeded) in the fall in some areas, you could easily plant into October and even — in some cases — the November 1 deadline. In fact, they were able to seed up to November 1 on three-quarters of the sites.”

If there was one drawback, it was that October-seeded winter wheat tended to yield 20 per cent less due to winterkill and other abiotic and biotic stresses. However, Beres doesn’t see this as a fatal issue.

“The thing to keep in mind is that we’ve shown over and over again that the winter wheat yield potential over spring wheat yield potential runs around 20 per cent. So the derived benefits of spreading workload, less capital cost, earlier cash flow, etc., are still achieved, and I think the value of those benefits is grossly understated.”

Beres says the project also showed that winter wheat planted along with seed treatment performed much better. “You would help offset that 20 per cent penalty if you use the seed treatment because you get significantly more grain yield if you’re using a seed treatment than if you’re not.”

No matter how viable post-window winter wheat seeding might be, most producers will likely avoid it if crop insurance providers are not on board. Beres says there have been some efforts to convince them to extend coverage. Progress has been made, he says, although it may not currently extend to all areas, so producers should contact their insurance providers about coverage policies.

“If we can overcome that then there’s one less reason for a grower to see winter wheat as a disincentive as opposed to an opportunity.”

Blend with spring wheat?

Graf says another option to increase winter wheat’s appeal could be a change to the grading system in which it could be mixed with similar-quality spring wheat.

“Do we need to have as much segregation in our medium-protein wheats as we do now? Right now we have three medium-protein wheats being grown on the Prairies: Canadian prairie red spring, Canada western red winter and Canada northern hard red, all of which have good milling and baking properties but are somewhat different in terms of gluten strength and some other characteristics. But from the standpoint of world markets, the relatively minor differences are not broadly recognized.”

“Perhaps there’s an opportunity to commingle these classes and by doing so get more of a critical mass for medium-protein wheat coming out of Western Canada that would benefit all the classes.”

Graf says he’s not suggesting eliminating the current medium-protein classes, but rather the development of a specific market offering for buyers looking for a medium-protein product with appeal in a broad range of uses.

“It probably makes sense to maintain those classes because there are some differences between them. If a buyer came up with some very specific requirements, the existing class segregations could be an advantage.”

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