Chris Ledbetter took a short break from fall vertical tillage operations for a few minutes the week before Thanksgiving to talk a bit about the production practices that earned him a third place finish for Oklahoma in the National Wheat Yield Contest.
His contest yield was 102 bushels per acre, “a little off from last year’s 107 bushels,” but a respectable entry, says Ledbetter, who farms in Okmulgee County, near Morris, Okla.
Farm average on 1,000 to 1,100 acres topped 60 bushels, also off a tad from typical production. A dry winter knocked about five bushels per acre off his usual yield. “We had an extended dry spell in the winter that hurt. But we got some rain about Easter that finished it out,” Ledbetter says.
He’s pleased with corn and soybean production. “We averaged 134 bushels of corn, and soybeans will be in the 40-bushel range,” he says. “It’s all dryland. The Lord watered us good this year.”
He attributes much of his success with all three crops to adopting an intensive management program a few years back. “After I committed to intensive management, yields took a significant jump. I believe strongly in it.”
The program starts with seed treatments, including fungicide and insecticide. “Every seed we put in the ground has a seed treatment,” Ledbetter says. That’s a critical early program to combat greenbugs and yellow barley dwarf, a viral disease transmitted by greenbugs. The seed treatments protect wheat for as long as 60 to 75 days, Ledbetter says. “It’s not promoted to last that long, but it does,” he says. “After that, if we see bugs, we spray.”
SPLIT NITROGEN APPLICATIONS
He says split nitrogen applications are part of the intensive management protocol. “We spray nitrogen at green-up and again at stem elongation. That split application helps with yield and protein. Sulfur is important, too, so we use one unit of sulfur for every ten units of nitrogen. That also helps protein content and is a valuable nutrient.”
Ledbetter says paying attention to protein level has become essential. “That’s where demand is.”
He says new varieties first look to yield and then to protein level. “At 9 percent, 10 percent, 11 percent protein, we don’t see much demand. I want protein level at least 12 or higher. That depends on variety, the year and the yield. Our new varieties produce the yield, and if we add enough fertilizer and get enough water, we get the protein. We have to manage it.”
Ledbetter’s contest entry was a new WestBred variety, WB 4303. “We had been watching that variety in test plots and had very high hopes for it,” he says. “Last fall was the first opportunity we had to plant it, and it did quite well.”
He says the field where he cut the contest entry averaged 86 bushels per acre. “It’s a good field but a different one from last year’s contest entry. I usually look for a good spot from a good field,” he says.
The National Wheat Yield Contest, in its second year, is hosted by the National Wheat Foundation. The contest included nearly 300 entries from 28 wheat producing states.
Ledbetter grows seed wheat, and typically plants only three or four varieties, “to make seed production easier to manage.”
He offers fields for variety trials on his farm. “Variety trials are a big advantage,” he says. “We get an early look at experimental varieties, and we get to see them under our growing conditions for two or three years. WestBred plants a trial, and I always plant a trial of my own.”
His management program for corn and soybeans is built around intense management, too. He doublecrops soybeans behind harvested wheat, no-tilled into the stubble. He vertical tills the land following soybean harvest and plants corn on that acreage the following spring. “I get three crops in two years,” he says.
“No-till works great with soybeans,” he says. “I used to plant both doublecrop and singlecrop soybeans, but I found out that doublecrop yielded as well as or better than singlecrop, so I switched them all over. The residue from the wheat is a big plus. It feeds the microbial life in the soil and results in better yields.”
No-till corn, however, doesn’t work as well. That’s why he spends time in the fall and again in the spring vertical tilling. “I use an in-line ripper following the beans in the fall and again about a month or sometimes a few days before planting corn in the spring.”
He needs the limited tillage, he says, to break up some of the residue. He plants corn in late March or early April, before the wheat and soybean residue can break down. I’m not against no-till corn, but in our area, it’s just hard to work through that residue early in the season. I till just enough to move the residue and to let the soil warm up.”
The week before Thanksgiving Ledbetter had finished planting wheat and said most of it was up, a little was just coming up, and emergence looked to be uniform. “We are a little dry,” he says. Soybean harvest was almost done.
With the 2017 season all but in the books, he’s looking to next year, taking care of fall tillage and thinking about next steps.
“I don’t anticipate any earth-shattering changes,” he says. He will continue to look at variety trials to find that next high yielding option and he is committed to intensive management to maintain yield and quality.