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Extension > Minnesota Crop News > Topics Addressing Small Grain Crop Dry-down and Harvest

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Topics Addressing Small Grain Crop Dry-down and Harvest

Jochum Wiersma, Small Grains Specialist, 
Doug Holen, Crops Extension Educator and 
Phyllis Bongard, Educational Development and Communications Specialist

Small grain harvest is underway in parts of southern Minnesota including winter wheat, winter rye, barley, and even spring wheat.  The common theme to date is harvest maturity.  Many calls and questions are circulating addressing crop dry-down and removal.  Most of this concern comes on the back side of strong wind events across the state resulting in significant lodging. 

Other contributing factors predisposing the fields to lodging include frequent rains, genetics, and what appears to be good yield potential (top heavy plants and ideal stooling conditions).  These lodged areas are not maturing at the same rate as standing grain and introduce environments conducive to armyworm infestations, head/kernel diseases, and possibly pre-harvest sprout damage.

Unfortunately, these areas are unlikely to improve this late in the season.  Getting the bushels harvested and maintaining seed quality will often require additional steps. These approaches include:

  • slower combine ground speeds and lower cutting heights, 
  • multiple harvest dates in same field, 
  • use of bins equipped for drying, 
  • swathing, and pre-harvest glyphosate.  

Leaving the lodged areas and waiting for harvest maturity naturally puts those areas at risk for hail, sprouting, and disease damage.  These areas will have higher grain moistures, so handling needs attention.

In light of the crop at or nearly harvest and the widespread concern for removal, here are a couple articles from past seasons addressing the same topics.  Pay particular attention to the description of physiological maturing signaling maximum dry matter accumulation (yield) and the onset of crop dry down.


The art of swathing 


Swathing or windrowing of wheat, barley and oats was, at one time, the default operations that signaled the beginning of harvest. The primary purpose of swathing is to speed up and even out the dry down of the crop. Swathing always posed a risk as grain in the swath is more prone to preharvest sprouting if threshing is delayed due to adverse weather.

Therefore, most wheat and barley is now straight cut because modern varieties allow for it. Preharvest applications of glyphosate have further reduced need to swath wheat. In oats, swathing remains more common place.

Swathing is becoming, however, something of a lost art. First, you have to decide when the crop is ready to be swath. The optimum time to swath is when the crop has reached physiological maturity. This is the same time to consider the application glyphosate. This is the point in the development when the crop has reached its maximum dry weight and the grainfill period has come to an end. Moisture content of the grain will vary but the ranges from 30 to 40 percent. In the absence of a moisture meter, there are other cues that signal the crop has reached physiological maturity. One of the easiest is to look at the color of the uppermost internode, or peduncle. The upper most portion of the peduncle, just below the spike or panicle, will have turned very light green to yellow when the crop reaches physiological maturity. There still may be some green in the canopy below or in the glumes but the least mature kernels will no green left in them, when threshed out by hand.

Swathing before the crop reaches physiological maturity will result in yield and test weight losses and green kernels in the harvested grains. The losses get progressively worse the earlier you cut the crop. Research at NDSU in spring wheat and durum showed that swathing the grain at 45 percent moisture caused a  to 2-pound reduction in test weight and about a 10 percent reduction in grain yield. Swathing after physiological maturity increases the risk of shattering and will equally cause yield losses but no losses in grain quality. Shattering losses can be reduced by swathing in the early morning or late evening when some dew is present in the crop.


Pre-harvest management options for wheat


There are two methods of pre-harvest management that can speed up the wheat harvest. Swathing or windrowing, at one time, was the default operation that signaled the beginning of harvest. The primary purpose of swathing is to speed up and even-out the dry down of the crop. However, swathing poses a risk, since grain in the swath is more prone to pre-harvest sprouting if adverse weather delays threshing.

A second pre-harvest option is an application of glyphosate at the hard dough stage. Research has shown that glyphosate applied with or without ammonium sulfate may hasten dry down of the wheat crop if conditions for dry down are adverse. With a pre-harvest interval of 7 days, a couple of days, at the most, may be gained. Since modern varieties allow for it, most wheat and barley is now straight cut instead of swathed. Table 1 summarizes advantages and disadvantages for each of these pre-harvest management options.





Optimum time for pre-harvest management


The optimum time for pre-harvest management is right at or just after the crop has reached physiological maturity (PM). This applies regardless of whether the grain is swathed or glyphosate is applied as a pre-harvest treatment. At physiological maturity, the crop has the maximum kernel dry weight and no additional dry matter will be deposited into the grain. Similarly, grain protein cannot be increased after PM through glyphosate applications or other management practices. 

The kernel moisture percentage at physiological maturity is relatively high and can vary from 20 to 40 percent. Research has shown that swathing just before PM does not harm grain yield or quality. However, this practice is not recommended when using glyphosate as a pre-harvest tool.


How to identify physiological maturity


There are two visual indicators that can be used to determine whether the crop has reached physiological maturity. The first indicator is the loss of green in the kernel and the appearance of a dark layer of cells or pigment along the crease of the wheat kernel (Figure 1). Kernels in the same spike will reach physiological maturity at different times, with the middle of the head maturing first.


Another visual indicator is the loss of green from the uppermost internode or peduncle. The uppermost portion of the peduncle, just below the spike, will have turned very light green or yellow at physiological maturity (Figure 2). At this time, transportation of water and nutrients to the head has been cut off and the crop has reached maximum grain fill.




Consequences of swathing or applying glyphosate too early



Swathing or applying glyphosate before the crop reaches physiological maturity will result in yield and test weight losses and green kernels in the harvested grains. The losses get progressively worse the earlier the crop is cut or treated. Research at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in spring wheat and durum showed that swathing the grain at 45 percent moisture caused a 1- to 2-pound reduction in test weight and about a 10 percent reduction in grain yield. Swathing after physiological maturity increases the risk of shattering and will equally cause yield losses but no losses in grain quality. Shattering losses can be reduced by swathing in the early morning or late evening when some dew is present in the crop.


Varietal differences in pre-harvest sprouting


Hard red spring wheat varieties differ in their resistance to pre-harvest sprouting, which can be concern for swathed grain during adverse weather conditions. This high-temperature dormancy peaks at physiological maturity. 

Repeated wetting and drying of the grain in a swath or even while standing will degrade this dormancy over time. In addition, the dormancy of some varieties break down sooner than others, potentially resulting in sprout damage. 

The pre-harvest sprouting ratings for current HRSW varieties can be found in the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station Variety Trials. The best remedy to avoid pre-harvest sprout damage is to harvest in a timely manner, even if the grain moisture content is above 13.5 percent.

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