Considerations when planting wheat in dry soil

The latest drought monitor has most of the western half of Ellis County listed as extreme drought, the rest of the county is severe except for the northeast corner as moderate drought. Most of Barton County is listed as moderate drought except for the northwest corner as severe.

As wheat planting approaches, growers are likely considering more than one option. They can choose to “sprinkle” the wheat at the normal seeding depth and normal planting date, and hope for rain. Some growers may consider planting it shallower than normal, but this could increase the potential for winterkill or frost. Planting wheat at the normal depth and hoping for rain is probably the best option where the soils are very dry. The seed will remain viable in the soil until it receives enough moisture.

NOAA’s long-term outlook for much of the western half of Kansas and all of the southern half to one-third of counties in the state is that the drought is expected to persist through late November.

There are three basic options for planting winter wheat in dry soils:

1. Plant as normal and expect rain, but due to current moderate to extreme drought conditions. Romulo Lollato, K-State wheat specialist, would advise growers to treat their fields as if they were planting later than the optimal time because the emergence date will likely be delayed. Rather than reducing seeding rates and fertilizers to save money on a lost cause, growers should increase seeding rates, consider using a fungicide seed treatment, and consider using a starter fertilizer at the phosphorus to improve early season development. However, growers should be careful with in-furrow nitrogen or potassium fertilizers, as these are salts and can make it more difficult for seeds/seedlings to absorb water needed for germination. The idea is to make sure the wheat gets off to a good start and will have enough ears to have good yield potential, assuming it will eventually rain and the crop will come up late. Wheat that emerges in October may still have full yield potential, but wheat that emerges in November almost always has fewer fall tillers and therefore may have reduced yield potential. Planting normally and hoping for rain. Two undesirable results could occur: crusting after heavy rain and soil erosion due to strong wind. Crusting and soil erosion are less likely in no-till situations than in conventionally tilled fields.

2. Wait for rain, then plant. If you choose to do this and plant later, the above recommendations for increasing seeding rates, consider using a fungicide seed treatment, and using a phosphorus starter fertilizer are advised.

3. Sow deeper to reach soil moisture. This will require the seedlings to push through more soil to emerge and absorb sunlight. Therefore, it is better to sow a variety with a long coleoptile (first leaf sheath). Since there may be plant losses, consideration should be given to increasing the seeding rate. It is recommended that winter wheat be planted no deeper than 3 inches.

Crop insurance considerations and lead times will play a role in these decisions. Another consideration is to delay most nitrogen application until spring cover time, since wheat does not need much nitrogen in the fall. This would delay expenditures until an acceptable wheat stand is assured.

Stacy Campbell is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Officer for the Cottonwood Extension District. Email him at or call Hays’ office at 785-628-9430.

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