The 2013 growing season was one of the most productive on record for Western Canada. There were big crops of everything from peas, to canola, to cereals. Durum and hard red spring wheat crops were huge on many farms. While this is good news for farmers (as long as they can get the crop moved), this means that the majority of the nitrogen applied to the crop was being utilized by the plants to increase yield, at the cost of protein. Many farmers are reporting low to very low protein in wheat samples, which was expected, but in some cases some farmers are also feeling the sting of a downgrade due to what is known as piebald.
Piebald is a result of low protein and high starch content in wheat kernels. It can be identified by white/light coloured spots or blotches on the kernel. With nitrogen being such a key component to protein building, in a lot of cases the piebald is due to a shortage of nitrogen at crucial stages such as flower-filling.
Now, you never know what the following year is going to entail, but here are some practices that could decrease not just piebald, but low protein:
Top Dress N: The first technique you could use is top dressing nitrogen later on in the plant life cycle as this ensures more N will be available at the crucial filling stage and not going towards excessive vegetative growth. This could also avoid other problems such as lodging.
Slow Release N: Another technique could be to use a control release fertilizer such as ESN. This hedges against early season N losses and allows for nitrogen use later on in the plant life cycle. Click here for a discussion on N-control-release fertilizer choices.
Total Crop Nutrition: A third practice that can decrease the chance of your wheat crop getting piebald is balanced fertility, from nitrogen, sulfur and potassium to the micro nutrients. Sulfur, for example, also happens to be an important part of amino acids in plants, the building blocks of protein — a lack in some amino acids could mean a shortage of protein building. To balance your nitrogen and sulfur it is often beneficial to aim for a 7:1 nitrogen to sulfur ratio in wheat (for every 7 lb of N, apply 1 lb of S).
At the end of the day you must also ensure that there is an adequate amount of N for your target yield, many sources will state it takes greater than two pounds of nitrogen for every bushel of wheat produced while still maintaining a 13% range of protein level.
Don’t take the risk of a downgrade or miss out on an opportunity for a protein premium!