Wheat harvest is just about to start. In fact, it may have already started in some places.
But for some producers, it won’t be easy this year — especially with all the recent storms that have passed through, leaving some fields with lots of lodged wheat in their aftermath.
“We do have some lodged wheat in our area, which is not uncommon,” says Andrew Kness, ag science Extension agent for University of Maryland Extension in Harford County. “Some years are worse than others due to weather events. Strong winds and heavy, beating rains are a main contributing factor to lodged wheat, in conjunction with high yields [heavy heads].”
Laura Lindsey, associate professor of soybeans and small grains with Ohio State Extension, says she saw lots of lodging in some wheat fields in northeast Ohio, most likely caused by recent storms.
“The wheat was lodged anywhere between 20% to 80%, depending on the variety,” she says. “The wheat was not completely flattened, so it will hopefully stand more upright in the upcoming days.”
Watch for quality issues
Lodging not only makes harvesting an adventure, but it also presents challenges from a disease and quality standpoint.
“Right now, the biggest threat is from diseases that can attack the crop,” says Eric Anderson, field crops educator with Michigan State Cooperative Extension. “When it lodges, the plants will remain wet for long periods of time following heavy dew, fog or rain, and these will be breeding grounds for head scab and various foliar diseases.
“These could still impact yield as we are in grain fill, but if head scab does set it, it could result in infected kernels that will have deoxynivalenol [DON, vomitoxin] that could result in dockage or even rejection at the elevator.”
If the crop is ready, don’t delay harvesting, even if there is some lodging. Delaying harvest longer than necessary will only cause more disease and quality issues. So if you see a window between storms, take advantage.
“Test weight is one of the grain-quality traits most likely to be affected by harvest delay and wet conditions,” according to the Ohio State Extension C.O.R.N. Newsletter. “Low test weights usually occur if grain is prevented from filling completely or maturing, and drying naturally in the field. Rewetting of grain in the field after maturity but prior to harvest is one of the main causes of reduced test weight.
“When grain is rewetted, the germination process begins, causing photosynthates [starch] to be digested. This leaves small voids inside the grain, which decreases test weight. Additionally, grain will swell each time it is rewetted and may not return to its original size as it dries, which will also reduce test weight. Thus, the enlarged kernels will take more space but weigh the same, allowing fewer kernels to pack in the measuring container, lowering the test weight.”
If your wheat is lodged, mold growth is also something to pay close attention to.
“To fungi, mature wheat heads are nothing more than dead plant tissue ready to be colonized,” according to the newsletter. “Under warm, wet conditions, saprophytic fungi readily colonize wheat heads, resulting in a dark moldy cast being formed over the heads and straw. This problem is particularly severe on lodged wheat.”
If you’re planning to store your wheat, get it dried down as low as possible.
“Harvesting at a slightly higher moisture level, 18% for example, may also be useful for minimizing quality losses, particularly those associated with sprouting and mold growth due to rainfall and harvest delay,” according to the newsletter. “However, if grain is harvested at moisture above 15%, it should be dried down below 15% before storage to minimize mold growth and mycotoxins in storage.”
Anderson says to keep the grain head as low as possible and harvest against the direction of lodging.
“Of course, that means you’re only combining in one direction, which can significantly increase the time it takes to harvest if large portions of the field are down. You can also run the combine perpendicular to the direction of lodging, which would be better than harvesting in the direction of the lodging,” he says, adding that draper heads are more effective at picking up a lodged crop than an auger head.
Kness’ advice is simple: Slow down.
“Harvesting lodged wheat is a slow process, so don't try to force it to go faster,” he says. “Slow the combine, and make sure the reel is forward and down, picking up the wheat heads and placing them on the cutter bar. Cut as low as possible. Combining across the direction of the lodged wheat can help it feed better.”
Plan for changes
Mother Nature can throw lots of curveballs, but you can plan to do your part to prevent lodging issues.
“There are definitely differences in lodging potential among varieties, so make that part of your variety decision process,” Anderson says. “Applying too much nitrogen in the fall will tend to increase stem height and increase lodging potential. Some varieties grow shorter by nature, which will reduce lodging potential, but plant growth regulators can also be applied to the crop to shorten internode length and increase stem diameter to reduce lodging potential.”
It’s still a good idea to plant in the fall after the Hessian fly-free date, Kness says. But pay close attention to plant population.
“Cramming too many plants in per acre will cause the wheat to grow taller, weaker stems, which again promotes lodging,” he says. “Apply the right amount of nitrogen for your yield goal and nothing more; too much N will grow taller plants, which lodge easier.
“The timing of nitrogen should also be considered. Too much too early will grow tall wheat that is susceptible to lodging. Instead, splitting N applications [green-up and jointing] in the spring will help keep plants shorter, while also maximizing yield.”