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Finding ways to increase payback on wheat

Variable rate nitrogen application shows economic and environmental benefit

Better use of nitrogen in wheat through variable rate application is showing benefits across the province.

Less lodging, higher economic return and positive environmental impacts are catching the eyes of crop farmers across Ontario wanting to get better return on what is sometimes called “poverty grass”.

Why it matters: Some growers who have invested in more fertility for wheat have seen returns, but convincing growers to invest more in wheat can be a challenge, as it usually has the lowest return compared to corn and soybeans.

Variable rate nitrogen can improve profit margins on wheat in more ways than one, says Mike Wilson, affiliate program lead with Veritas Farm Management in Chatham.

Mike Wilson.
photo: File

“More bushels are obviously going to make (wheat acres) more profitable, but also saving inputs in areas where we can’t get any more yield is going to make the customer more profitable. As well, using variable rate technology allows both to happen.”

Veritas helps farmers to identify their crop variability and understand how to best manage it.

With the use of drones, an image of the field is taken, the image is sent off to receive a script and within 48 hours the script is on the farmer’s equipment software.

The drones allow for a real-time image, an overview of how the crop is performing. Soil tests measure variability throughout the field by understanding what the crop has available to utilize, not what it is using.

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“[Soil tests] don’t tell or show us the current state of the crop, it measures the nutrients in the soil; if it’s been a cold, wet spring, and the crop is stressed, it’s not stressed because of the soil [based on a good soil test], it’s stressed because of the poor microbial activity, lack of oxygen and soil temperature.”

Veritas started using variable rate nitrogen in 2017 and last year was the first full year it used its nitrogen program across multiple fields. The use of the program has increased in 2019 and the company hopes it will continue into the future.

Less lodging, ease of harvest, improved quality and better overall yield are benefits the customers are starting to see through this program.

“I had a lot of customers over the last few years looking at wheat and trying to increase yield and push yield a little harder with higher rates of N and fungicides,” says Wilson. “How do we help farmers continue to push for those high yields without sacrificing quality or harvestability of the crop?”

Wilson says farmers typically push nitrogen but they are often surprised that additional N on poor yielding areas makes such an improvement to yield.

As well, applying lower rates in the higher yielding areas helps to reduce lodging without affecting the yield in any way. That result is mainly because higher soil organic matter in these areas means the crop is already yielding well and it doesn’t need extra nitrogen to be pushed further.

Trying to find the optimum rate for each production zone within a field is part of the program still being worked on.

“As we start increasing the nitrogen as the crop weakens, how far do we go before we draw that line where the crop is too poor and adding additional nitrogen is a waste of money? We are still working on figuring [this out].”

Wilson says, like all new tools, it will take some time for variable rate nitrogen to be widespread and used consistently across the province.

“I think you will see it with larger producers, or producers that are pushing for quality or high yielding crops who have the right equipment on farm or who are willing to work with an ag retailer with the right equipment.”

Variable rate nitrogen has been applied in corn for years, and has now slowly trickled into wheat. The trends seen with this program in wheat is similar to the results seen within corn.

Although in the early stages of the program, Veritas continues to learn, push and measure as much as it can to help growers make a profitable decision in the outcome from better use of nitrogen.

“The best thing to do is understand the variability throughout your field and match your application to that variability to be profitable from an economic standpoint, but also an environmental impact.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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