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Learning from world record wheat yields

By: RealAgriculture Agronomy Team

February 18, 2021

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In 2020, Eric Watson broke his own world record when he harvested 258 bushels of wheat per acre on his Ashburton, New Zealand farm.

It’s an astounding yield that Canadian farmers can only dream about. But are there crop management tips that farmers in this country can glean from Watson’s record-setting wheat? Bayer CropScience regional business manager David Weith thinks so. He consults with Watson on management of his crops and does acknowledge that New Zealand’s long growing season, mild winters, and extended grain fill period makes it difficult to draw agronomic parallels, but there are insights Canadian growers can gain from Watson’s success.

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Weith shared his experience working with the world record crop during a recent virtual Ontario Agricultural Conference. RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin interviewed Weith at his home in New Zealand to drill down into several management areas that are relevant for Canadian wheat growers.

One of the most obvious contributors to the tremendous yield is the number of heads per square metre. In Watson’s crop the count was 126 heads. In Ontario, wheat tends to produce about 75 heads. Here, Weith stresses that seed singulation, uniform seeding depth, and taking a precision approach to planting wheat helps drive yield. (Story continues after the interview.)

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Tiller management is another key. Watson’s crop produced up to 10 tillers per plant. RealAgriculture agronomist Peter Johnson notes that it’s difficult for Ontario wheat growers to support even five or six tillers.

Weith recommends Ontario growers plant their winter wheat crop as early as possible and do their best to support fall tillers. He acknowledges that this can prove challenging, advising growers to concentrate their efforts on supporting fall tillers rather than spring tillers, and pay close attention to their nitrogen application. When it comes to N, it’s important to feed the crop; however, multiple applications and split rates can help manage aggressive plant growth.

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One of the challenges of high tiller numbers and ample fertility is the increased risk of lodging. Plant growth regulators play a key role here, says Weith. They’re an integral part of managing plant growth, keeping it standing and supporting high grain fill in the heads.

Weith also acknowledges the important role that new and improved wheat genetics plays in Watson’s record yields. The New Zealand farmer tests new varieties every year and “we don’t muck around with keeping our own seed,” adds Weith. “We want high vigour seed that will get out of the ground fast and do a good job. We want varieties that will hang in there, stay upright and deliver good standability.”

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Weith encourages growers to try new varieties on their farm. He says Watson’s world records are a good example of the benefits that genetic advancement can deliver.  Since 2015, a period that has seen multiple world records on on his farm, Watson has planted nine different varieties. For the 2020 world record, he planted a new variety that significantly out-yielded the one he used to set his previous world record in 2017.