Wheat School: YEN results show grower decisions really matter

In 2022, the top 20 growers in the Great Lakes Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) harvested 50 bu/ac more wheat than the bottom 20 growers in overall yield rankings.

What’s really surprising, says RealAgriculture agronomist Peter Johnson, is that this gap exists despite there being only a five percent difference in yield potential between the two groups when the winter wheat crop was planted. Overall, the top growers averaged 139 bu/ac while the bottom group checked in in at 89 bushels.

Johnson says there’s a very important message here for all wheat growers: “It says Mr. Grower, you matter; and the decisions you make matter… I think that’s a powerful piece of information. If you’re in the bottom 20, there’s room for improvement. Even if you’re in the top 20, there’s room for improvement.”

On this episode the RealAgriculture Wheat School, Johnson and Michigan State University wheat systems specialist Dennis Pennington dive into the 2022 Great Lakes YEN results to identify key management insights from the second year of the program. Coordinated by the Grain Farmers of Ontario, Michigan State University, Michigan Wheat Program, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the University of Guelph, the Great Lakes YEN project helps farmers learn from each other about new ways to improve winter wheat yields.

The program kicked off in 2021 with 43 growers before expanding in 2022 with 98 growers completing the project. For 2023, enrolment will soar to 170 growers. In the 2022 competition, Jeffery Krohn, from Elkton, Michigan, won both the yield and per cent of potential yield categories with 165.92 bu/ac while achieving 87.97 per cent of potential. Andy Timmermans from Stratford, Ont., finished second in both categories with 150.19 bu/ac and 79.07 per cent yield potential.

In the video, Pennington and Johnson dig into the data to identify the leading yield contributors. Pennington says the highest correlation for high grain yield is biomass. “What that means is you need to produce the biggest crop that you can produce. Get that canopy closed as early in the season as you can, so that you’re able to capture as much solar energy as possible through photosynthesis, to get that crop to grow. The bigger the crop in terms of total above ground biomass, the bigger the yield potential is on that field.”

Another indicator that stood out is the number of heads per metre squared. Growers in the top 20 percent averaged 934 heads, compared to 582 for the bottom group. Diving further into the numbers, Pennington and Johnson agree that seeding rate and seeding date play a significant role in influencing head count.

Pennington concedes that there are a lot of factors that influence yield, “but really the ultimate thing is you have to get the crop planted on time. I used to say, you’ve got to get the crop planted early, but that’s not really true, you’ve got to get it planted on time.” He notes that on average the top growers planted 11 days earlier than those in the bottom group. (Story continues after the video.)

When it comes to seeding rate, Pennington says the YEN results and other research indicates that growers are planting more seeds than they need to and they can back off populations. In fact, he notes that Jeffery Krohn’s YEN winning 165.92 bu/ac was achieved with a planting population of only 800,000 seeds/ac.

“A lot of people say, oh my God, that’s way too low, there’s no way you can get a good crop there. But he had the highest number of heads per metre squared,” notes Pennington. Krohn also had the second highest total biomass. Overall, the top 20 growers planted 1.5 million seeds/ac compared to 1.7 million for the bottom 20, a 200,000 seed swing.

What is that telling Pennington? “I think we can move to lower populations… Give a little bit more space between those seeds in the row and let them let those tillers do a little bit better job of providing heads per metre squared that contribute to our final yield.”

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