SUSSEX COMMUNITY SEED BANK

Wheat

Wheat is not difficult to grow. You can plant a small plot of it as easily and as simply as you would plant a small plot of lawn, because that is what wheat is, a grass. There are two types of wheat – spring wheat ( sown in the spring) and winter wheat (sown in the autumn) Work up a fine seedbed with a rotavator, rake, disk or harrow, broadcast the seed on the soil surface, rake or harrow lightly to cover it. That’s about all the work there is until harvest time.

Wheat is not nearly as demanding of fertilizer as corn is. Keep your pH for wheat as close to 6.4 as you can and plant in well-drained soil, and half your growing problems are solved. Wheat does not like acid soil and hates wet soil.

In the garden, manure, rock phosphate, and either greensand, alfalfa mulch or wood ashes will give wheat all the nourishment it needs. Organic fertilizers are fairly well balanced in having comparatively low amounts of N-P-K. It is also good to plant wheat after a legume crop as this fixes nitrogen into the soil. Gently prepare the soil after a legume crop so as to not expose the nitrogen nodules from the legumes to the air and be lost and instead left in the soil for nutrient availability for the wheat.

With an organic fertility programme as outlined above, trace element deficiency should not be a problem for organic growers.

Regarding problems with wheat the most common problem is what is called ‘lodging’. This is when wheat is heavy and high yielding and the wind may knock it flat on the ground, making harvesting exceedingly difficult. Shorter, stiffer-strawed wheats have solved this problem to some extent. But too much nitrogen, producing rank, succulent growth, may still cause lodging. Lack of potassium, which is the nutrient that strengthens the stalks, will also cause lodging.

Rusts and blights have been problems with wheat traditionally, but continual breeding of resistant varieties has held these diseases at bay.

‘Take-all’ is the common name for an old and serious disease. The disease is caused by a soil-born fungus which grows best in wet conditions. Symptoms are stunting, premature ripening, and lodging. Roots rot and stem bases disintegrate. Stems often blacken near the crown, and then the plant breaks off at the ground level. Losses can be total, hence the name ‘take-all’.

Once infected the wheat can’t be saved by any means at man’s disposal. But control is not difficult. The disease seems to strike wheat most frequently on poor soil, and is rarely seen on fertile soil. Low nitrogen, say the experts, favours disease development. Another obvious control, say the experts, is to avoid planting wheat after wheat, proving again the pest –prevention powers of crop rotation.

The main problem in raising wheat organically is weed control. Because wheat is planted solid rather than in rows, you can’t weed it, so without very good management, you can get too many weeds.

Organically, you have to get those weeds by clever rotations. The crop before wheat should always be a row crop that has been cultivated intensively for weed control. That way you at least start ahead of the weeds. Planting wheat in the autumn gets off to a head start as the weeds stop growing and makes a good stand and is off growing in the spring, choking out most weeds that try and come later.

To help overcome the weed problem plant in rows like the Chinese do and cultivate it. The spacing between rows should be 25cm apart and sow the wheat to a depth of 3-5cm.

Ripe wheat turns a flat yellow to almost a dead brownish red, depending on locality and variety. On most varieties, the heads crook over and point to the ground when the wheat is ripe. Pull a few heads, rub the kernels out in the palm of your hand, blow away the chaff, and chew a few grains. If crunchy hard the grain is ripe, if at all chewy soft, it is not yet ripe. Moisture content should be 12 to 13 % before grain can be safely stored.

A moisture meter is very useful to determine the fitness of your grain for harvest and storage by taking random samples.

On small plots of land you can harvest by hand. Cut the wheat with a scythe, leaving perhaps a three or four inch stubble. Cut a swath about two feet wide, whatever constitutes a natural, easy swing of the scythe for you.

For hand threshing, the grain is cut, tied into bundles and shocked first. For this operation, you do not wait until the wheat is completely ripe, but cut it a little green, when the wheat is at the doughy stage. The stalks will be yellow, but you will still discern streaks of green in some of them.

When the bundles are all bound, you either set them up into shocks, or stack them in the building out of the rain. About 14 bundles make a good shock. Over the top of the shock one bundle can be placed and bent to make a cap to deflect rain from the grain.

Grain will ripen in the shock and remain virtually unharmed by rain for about a month. If you have only a few shocks, as I’m assuming, it’s best to get them into the barn as soon as possible after the grain is ripe, or even before, since rain is always harmful to the straw, if not the grain.

Once the wheat ripens in the shock – two weeks at the longest – you can thresh your grain. Lay out a large clean cloth on a hard surface. Lay a bundle of wheat on the sheet, and hit it with an old broom handle, plastic toy bat or other appropriate club. You won’t have to strike the wheat heads hard, as the grain will shatter quite easily onto the sheet.

Each bundle will have a cup or two of wheat in it. After you have flailed several times, pull the corners of the sheet together and dump the grain, chaff, and bits of straw into a bucket.

Then you winnow the grain, which means separating out the chaff with some kind of forced air. If a strong breeze is blowing you can pour the contents of your bucket into a second bucket from a height of three or four feet and the wind will blow away much of the foreign matter

It is easy enough to tell you to store the grain in insect-proof containers. But keeping the moths of grain beetles or weevils out of your dried grain is not the main problem. What causes the trouble is when the eggs or larvae are already on or in the grain when it is harvested or binned. You can put the grain in a tightly lid container and it can still be destroyed.

Assume the weevils or eggs are present in the grain at harvest. They can be killed by heating the grain to 140 f for half an hour. Freezing at O f is supposed to work too. Cold storage below 40 f will arrest any weevil activity and so preserve the grain.

There are several kinds of weevil that infest grain. The larvae are all very small, golden white to brown in colour.

Wheat is an extremely versatile crop, food for both animals and man, and able to be grazed too. But it provides another important commodity after the grain is harvested, the straw. Which can be used for livestock bedding or mulch for the soil. More information on seed drying can be found under our section ‘Seed Cleaning and Drying’ on our website.