Root growth is key to boosting winter wheat prospects


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Most wheat crops are suffering from sub-optimal rooting after the prolonged wet winter. With time running short before spring growth begins in earnest, Agrovista agronomists reveal how they hope to turn crops around and set them up for the rest of the season.

Rob Sheets

Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire

Plants are a lot less developed than they usually would be by this time of year. That includes early and mid-October drilled fields.

About 70% of the wheat was drilled and of that 20% is pretty ropey. Lots of wheat crop roots have stagnated from water logging and compacted soil conditions. It looks like they were drilled eight weeks ago rather than four months ago.

How long wheat was in the ground for before the first deluge of rain in October made all the difference. Ploughed probably looks best, much direct-drilled land has struggled especially when it was sown just before heavy rain or any time since. Min-till is somewhere in-between.

Crops are the opposite to last year. We have smaller plants generally, smaller roots, waterlogged soil, and poor phosphate availability due to compaction – I can see a lot of these crops needing a helping hand.

The main aim is to preserve existing tillers and maximise tiller numbers by keeping rooting problems to a minimum. Accessing phosphate is a good place to start provided the weather plays fair.

Some crops will turn the corner surprisingly quickly once nitrogen fertiliser is on and soils dry and warm towards the end of March. So I'm not hugely worried about these.

We need to apply fertiliser ASAP, and this year I'll be using Calfite Extra and Luxor on most of my wheats.

Calfite Extra will help roots access some of the locked-up phosphate to which soils in my area are prone, while Luxor will provide an immediate foliar source. It is particularly useful on land low in phosphate, and on second/third wheat or really late-drilled first wheats.

These ideally need to go on at the start of spring growth – any time from early March onwards.

But not everyone wants to make an extra pass. In a ‘normal’ season I’d apply at T0 when the sprayer is going through the crop with growth regulator and manganese, which is still beneficial – but earlier would be good this season.

If we catch a dry spell at some point and roots are shallow, crops are at risk of wasting away. Anything we can do to help rooting will benefit the crop.

I may apply Terra-Sorb Foliar Extra on some crops later in April (T1 timing). On OSR I would use the product with flowering sprays to improve flowering/pod set.

Peter Waltham

Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset

We have three situations in the field here in the west – some sensible-looking crops, some backward crops and some very late-drilled ones.

The sensible-looking crops went in quite well and got away before it got too wet. These, though, are the minority.

The backward crops that went in slightly later make up the majority. These are a mixed bag, with plenty of wet patches and some lost headlands.

The very late-drilled crops are only just emerging at the time of writing (6 March). Some were sown as late as the middle of February.

As such, we’re looking at three different management situations.

The first set of crops – the sensible-looking ones – will be managed pretty much as normal. With the more backward ones, we are going to have to feel our way through.

The first thing we have to do is improve the health of these crops, so they can pick up nitrogen and other nutrients more effectively, which will translate through to yield and hopefully gross margin come harvest.

Early nitrogen going to be key, especially on more backward crops to get them tillering. There will be next to nothing in the soil at the moment – we’re probably looking at indexes of 0 or one if we're very lucky.

Phosphorus is a key element when it comes to early growth, so we need to ensure plants are in the best shape to make the most of it.

Calfite Extra and Luxor are going to be important. I invariably use the two together. The phosphite element of Calfite Extra helps stimulate rooting and nutritional scavenging. The Luxor component delivers phosphate and some N&K, and we have the fulvic and humic acid components which support microbial activity in the soil.

With that in mind, I will probably apply some LCF Boost early on as well on soils that have taken a hammering.

We have to pick and choose what we're going to do. I think Calfite Extra and Luxor will give sensible returns as they are not particularly pricey, and a I suspect we might need a little less fungicide on some thinner crops, which will help offset the cost.

Everything will be more case-by-case this season than it's ever been.

My overall approach is to try to maximise what we can get from the genetics. Breeders have done an excellent job in terms of efficient expression of these genes. I use SAP testing in the field to measure the available nutrition in the plant as close to real time as possible. This really is key to optimising the expression of those genes in the field.

I probably will be using Calfite Extra and Luxor in more backward crops and where soil indexes are low. In these situations it is quite likely we will see a deficiency down the line, so it's probably better to pre-empt it rather than not. SNP testing will come into its own here as well.

We will be doing SAP tests about a week or so ahead of T0, and the same ahead of T1 and T2.

Some of the very late crops are only on their way through, so we need to keep an eye on them. At least they will have missed the worst of the blackgrass!

They will need to be managed a bit differently again. Once they begin tillering we may well look at Calfite Extra/Luxor, because they are going to need an extra kick. We can then consider what other bioscience products we might need to apply to keep these crops moving at a good pace.