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When is late too late?

It doesn't look like anyone will be doing any fieldwork in Minnesota anytime soon.  The question when it will be too late to seed small grains, therefore, is becoming a bit more urgent.  

Wheat, barley, and oat are cool-season annuals and are most productive when they grow and develop during cool weather.  The yield potential of these cereals is largely determined by the 6 leaf stage.  Cool temperatures during this period are particularly important for the development of a high yield potential.  For example, the number of tillers that ultimately produce grain at harvest declines as planting is delayed (Figure 1).  The number of spikelets per spike is determined during the 4 to 5.5 leaf stage (Figure 2).  Spikelet numbers are negatively correlated with temperature; spikelet numbers are greater when temperatures during the 4-5.5 leaf stages are cool.  

Figure 1 – The effect of planting date for on the number of heads per square feet of hard spring wheat at harvest in Langdon, ND (data and graph courtesy of Terry Gregoire, Area Agronomist, NDSU).

Figure 2 - The effect of maximum daily temperatures on the number of spikelets per spike that are initiated between the 4 and 5.5 leaf stage of spring wheat in Langdon, ND (data and graph courtesy of Terry Gregoire, Area Agronomist, NDSU).

Because of the expectation that average temperatures will be higher as we plant later, development of the crop will speed up too. The number of heat units required for a plant to move to the next phase of development will accumulate faster.  This forces development along faster and causes the plant to have less time to grow. Plants end up with fewer tillers, smaller heads, and fewer and smaller kernels per head, cutting into our yields.   

To improve the odds of high grain yields is to ensure that the tillering and head initiation phases occur during relatively cool temperatures is by planting early.  Early planting is key to raise wheat, barley, and oats in Minnesota successfully (Table 1)

Table 1 - The optimum and last recommended seeding dates for small grains in Minnesota.    
Last Planting Date:

South of US Hwy 12
South of MN Hwy. 210
1st week of April
2nd week of April
1st week of May
2nd  week of May
South of US Hwy. 10
3rd week of April        
3rd week of May
South of US Hwy. 2     
4th week of April
4th week of May
South of Canadian Border
1st week of May         
1st week of June

Research has shown that, on average, yields decreased 1% per day when planting is delayed past the optimum planting date.  Planting after the last possible date is not recommended because of the odds that grain yield and quality (test weight) will be dramatically reduced due to heat stress.

You can partially offset this yield loss by increasing the seeding rate and ensuring that you have more main stems per unit area. The recommendation is to increase the seeding rate by 1 percent for every day after the optimum planting window.

The last possible date for planting is not chiseled in stone. The odds of a high(er) grain yield with excellent test weight are less in our favor with every day seeding is delayed past our optimum planting windows simply because of the expected temperatures later in the growing season.   

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