When I started Extension work in Gage County the wheat was planted on continuous wheat ground or on government set aside ground. Yield averages were in the low 30s and there were numerous problems barring our ability to get yield increases. These included soft seedbeds, planting too early, poor phosphorus and nitrogen fertility, weed control issues, marginal variety selection and minimal use of seed treatments. The combined efforts of nature, the farm bill, Extension efforts and farmers skill have changed the picture.
Nature provided a freeze in the mid 80s, which wiped out two or three of the poor varieties and set farmers on a tone of better variety selection. Nature sent a clear message that seed treatment works and you might have wheat that smells like rotten fish from stinking smut if you do not treat the seed.
The farm program eliminated the set aside program and corn and soybeans became prominent crops. Nearly 90 percent of the wheat today is planted no-till following soybeans. The later planting date, firmer seedbed and crop rotation have all benefitted wheat. No-tilling corn into the wheat stubble also rewards the farmer with the soil moisture and mulch cover significantly improving dryland corn yields.
To quantify the impact of genetic improvement in wheat, disease and climate change over a 26-year period, a team of researchers at Kansas State University examined wheat variety yield data from Kansas’s performance tests, along with location-specific weather and disease data. Their results showed that from 1985 through 2011, wheat breeding programs boosted average wheat yields by 13 bushels per acre, or 0.51 bushel each year, for a total increase of 26 percent. Long-term temperature records indicate a rise of about one degree Fahrenheit in 50 year weather data in Kansas and Nebraska. Kansas State Simulations found that a 1 degree Celsius increase (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in projected mean temperature would decrease wheat yields by 10.64 bushels per acre or nearly 21 percent.
Farmers in Gage County today are using wheat as a rotation crop either every third year with corn and soybeans, or every fifth year with a corn-soybean rotation. The crop is grown for yield with good fertility and good variety selection. Since I started work in Gage County, wheat yields have increased 67 percent from a 30 bu/A average to a 50 bu/A average. Half of the yield increases coming from genetic improvements as shown in the Kansas State study and half from agronomic improvements. We will likely see some increases in wheat production in our area as we move into some years of projected tighter margins, glyphosate resistant weeds, wheat pricing projected to be relatively better than corn and soybeans, and a renewed focus on wheat genetic improvement with several major seed companies ramping up development of new age varieties and hybrid wheat.