Alex Griffiths, a winter wheat specialist with Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Brandon office, stands in a field of winter wheat near Neepawa last July. (Submitted)

Winter wheat producers across Manitoba are hoping for a repeat of last year’s record yields, which, combined with strong prices, have led to a surge in production of the hardy crop.

Last year broke records for Stephane Lapointe, who has been growing winter wheat for more than two decades southwest of Neepawa, 74 kilometres northeast of Brandon.

“We were able to produce an average of 97 bushels per acre, with some zones pushing close to 120,” he said.

Lapointe attributed some of his success to Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC).

Last year, 77,400 acres of winter wheat were seeded in Manitoba, up from 73,400 in 2022, 59,900 acres in 2021 and 32,000 acres in 2020, DUC said. Producers are also planting new varieties, including goldrush hard red winter wheat and wildfire, which have strong disease and rust resistance and usually high yields.

Now that snow is off of the ground in most areas of the province, Alex Griffiths, a winter wheat specialist who operates out of DUC’s Brandon office, said he’s optimistic about the upcoming harvest.

“The winter so far has been really good for winter wheat pretty much across the Prairies,” Griffiths told the Sun. “It’s looking like most fields survived the winter, which is excellent to see.”

Last winter’s thick blanket of snow insulated winter wheat from temperatures below -20 C. Despite some stretches of milder weather seen in Westman in January and February, the snow stayed on the fields, which was good news for winter wheat, Griffiths said.

Winter wheat is currently ranked in the middle of the most profitable crops grown in Manitoba, according to the province’s 2023 cost of production report, which estimates the price of producing the most commonly grown field crops in Manitoba.

However, DUC said that rating is based on an average yield of 66 bushels per acre and selling price of $9.75 per bushel. Last harvest, many producers were seeing 85 bushels per acre and prices of up to $12 per bushel, the non-profit organization said in a press release in April.

These yields and prices make winter wheat the most profitable cereal crop for many farmers in Westman, Griffiths said.

“In the past two years, half our growers have seen yields above 70 bushes [per] acre. Prices have been strong and that has often made winter wheat their number one cash crop.”

DUC offers financial incentives to Manitoba farmers who seed winter wheat and on-farm agronomic support throughout the growing season to make sure the crops are successful. The program provides $20 per acre, up to $5,000, fertility advice from the Western Ag group of agricultural companies, and access to a specialized grain marketing tool.

Winter wheat provides many environmental benefits, including improved control of soil erosion and enhanced habitat for wildlife, which is why DUC is so interested in promoting it, Griffiths said.

“Fall-seeded crops provide important nesting habitat for birds, because field operations are greatly reduced during spring nesting.”

Ducks nesting in winter wheat are 24 times more productive than ducks nesting in spring-sown cereals, according to DUC research. Now that most migratory birds are back from winters spent in warmer climes, they’re making use of winter wheat seeded across the Prairies.

“They’re all looking for a place to nest. Most spring-seeded crops like wheat, canola peas, won’t get seeded for probably another few weeks, and the nest would already be made by then,” Griffiths said.

Once nests are made, spring seeding often destroys any in the nearby vicinity. But with winter wheat, even herbicide applications won’t cause any harm to nesting ducks and geese, thanks to the height of the crop.

“It’s very uncommon for it to hit anything, so the nests are usually undisturbed.”

Around 90 per cent of ducks are done nesting by mid-July, and since winter wheat crops aren’t off the ground until mid- to late August, harvesting also doesn’t pose a threat to the animals.

Seeding in the fall means producers don’t have to roll over wet fields in the spring and compact the soil, which is another benefit, Lapointe said.

“It makes a difference having winter wheat in the ground, especially with a wet spring.”

Fall planting also allows farmers to save time in the busy spring season and enjoy an early harvest. And since winter wheat comes off the ground early, it offers a natural competitive edge against weeds.

Lapointe usually seeds his winter wheat in barley stubble, since the two cereals don’t host diseases that are dangerous to each other. He recommends other producers try different varieties and find what works best on their farms.

Griffiths foresees a lot more producers switching to winter wheat this year, especially if another wet spring pushes back seeding.

“The people who already have the winter wheat crop in the ground can rest easy knowing they’ve already got that there,” he said.

DUC is also looking at how to make seeding and growing winter wheat even more affordable for producers. This crop year, demonstration fields seeded in several locations across Manitoba will allow DUC researchers to determine exactly how much fertilizer is required to grow winter wheat.

The study will provide producers with precise answers about the level of nitrogen necessary, under varying conditions, to increase yield potential and reduce input costs.

“With the current high costs for nitrogen fertilizer, we feel this research will provide critical data to producers,” Griffiths said.

DUC is focused on finding a balanced fertility practice for high-yielding winter wheat varieties that consistently pay off for farmers, he added.

Throughout the project, winter wheat will be grown at eight sites, including participating landowner fields near Oakburn, Newdale, Neepawa and Selkirk, and government diversification centre plots in Melita, Carberry, Roblin and Arborg.

Producers who are interested in working with DUC to plant winter wheat can find out more at ag.ducks.ca or by emailing a_griffiths@ducks.ca.

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 04, 2023 at 10:26

This item reprinted with permission from   Brandon Sun   Brandon, Manitoba
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