Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

The Ups and Downs of Growing Winter Wheat - Theo Thirsk, Kelsey, AB
Author: Sandra Taillieu
Date Created: August 17, 2004
Last Reviewed: August 17, 2004

Theo Thirsk operates a seed far at Kelsey, in the black soil zone East of Camrose, Alberta. An experienced direct seeder and CORE Grower for Ducks Unlimited Canada, Theo isn’t afraid to try something new. That’s how he got started growing winter wheat.

Theo Thirsk in his field of Osprey winter wheat on July 30, 2003

“Winter wheat gives us another cropping option on our farm,” says Theo. It provides both the opportunity for access to an alternative market and the possibility of higher net returns per acre than spring wheat.

“We sell half the winter wheat crop into the seed market and the rest into the commercial market.” His commercial winter wheat crop has been sold to the Wheat Board on specialty contracts. He also has the option to sell it for feed.
“Our winter wheat yields are at least equal to that of hard red spring wheat,” says Theo. The winter wheat this year will likely yield higher than his HRS wheat because it took advantage of early moisture. The real economic benefit often results from reduced herbicide use. Theo has learned that a good stand of winter wheat may effectively out-compete wild oats. This can save Theo the cost of wild oat herbicide and have a significant impact on his net return per acre.
The first challenge for growing winter wheat is to have a stubble field ready when it is time to seed. Theo has tried growing winter wheat on canola stubble and a poorly established flax crop (failed because of hail) that was sprayed out early. Experts recommend seeding winter wheat into standing stubble. Snow cover caught by standing stubble helps insulate the crop throughout the winter and improves winter survival. Despite this recommendation, Theo’s best success has been on pea stubble.
“There’s not much stubble left after we harvest our peas,” Theo admits, “but we almost always have pea ground ready when it’s time to seed the winter wheat.”
Theo has had good winter survival on his Osprey winter wheat crops, which he credits in part to the hardiness of the newer variety.
Theo direct seeds with a 64 foot Bourgault air drill. He generally mid-row bands nitrogen fertilizer according to his soil test recommendations.
“We always seed at a one inch depth to just cover the seeds,” Theo explains. The first year Theo planted winter wheat, he seeded it into very dry ground and was amazed at how well it grew.

Theo's 64 foot Bourgault 5710 air dill

“The hardest part of growing winter wheat is taking time to seed when you think you should be combining,” says Theo. His ideal seeding date is September 1.

“Last year, I seeded too late and the stand just isn’t as good.” He hopes to have the plants develop 3 leaves in the fall to over-winter although he has seen smaller plants survive.

Theo examines a winter wheat plant


Theo may apply 2,4-D to control broadleaf weeds. If Theo has a competitive stand, he can avoid the use of wild oat herbicide. Theo has learned not to panic if his winter wheat crop is a little thin in places in the spring. Winter wheat has an excellent ability to tiller, which helps the crop to fill in. However, less competitive crop stands generally will result in the need for in-crop weed control, which cuts into Theo’s profit.

“It can be hard to wait for the winter wheat to mature,” says Theo. He would like to take his winter wheat right off the combine, clean it, and have it go back out for seed. This doesn’t always work. Theo harvested his first winter wheat crop 13 months after he seeded it.
Theo is still learning about winter wheat. It takes some extra time and planning to grow, but he has decided to keep a small portion of his acreage in winter wheat.
“As more farmers grow winter wheat, market opportunities for the crop will likely improve,” Theo predicts.