Wheat crop is the main cereal crop grown in the winter season in most parts of Southern Africa. In Zambia, it is the second most important cereal after maize. At the Martin Richenhagen Future Farm (MRFF), the wheat crop is cultivated on 7.5 hectares where long term tillage trials are being implemented. The trials are conventional / intensive tillage (Ripping and Discing) and Zero tillage.

The cropping season has just ended and Sheila Zulu, Agronomist and Farm solutions specialist at the MRFF compiled lessons learned from the just ended cropping cycle at the MRFF.


While planting in moisture is a recommended practice, moisture is available at all times with irrigated wheat. Moisture and good seed-soil contact is critical for wheat seed as it immediately sets the germination process in motion

Seeding depth

Although seeding depth of 3.5cm was used across all treatments, we noticed that seeds in the conventional tillage plots were pushed deeper after irrigation – this may have been due to intensively loosened ground and soil particles settling in after irrigation.

irrigated wheat
wheat germination

Seed Germination & Emergence

As the first root appears, the coleoptile cuts through the seed and begins to push towards the surface – once the coleoptile senses light, it stops growing to allow development of true leaves. This is among the reasons why deeper planting results in uneven emergence – more energy is required for the coleoptile to reach the surface and this may take longer than 3 days

Planting for all trials was done on the same day, however, variations were observed in seed germination. Seeds from the No Till trial emerged earlier and exhibited uniformity while in the conventional plot, there was a delay in emergence with lack of uniformity.

  • Seed emergence and plant population are the starting points to your wheat season; placing your seed at the right depth is very important.

Fertilization /Nutrient Management

Different nutrient management strategies may be employed in wheat cropping but the key principle is to ensure that nutrients are efficiently used to improve crop productivity whilst protecting the environment.

Nitrogen is the most important nutrient in wheat and mainly the most yield-limiting if not applied optimally. 

Timing and application of nitrogen is tied to growth stage – the latter cannot determined by just looking or referring to the calendar dates but by understanding crop features for various growth stages – ensure that you understand distinctive crop features from GS00 to GS99

During the previous season, we split nitrogen application to promote tillering and later on for protein build up. The first N application was made when the plants had a main shoot and 1-3 tillers (also known as GS 23) – this was aimed at boosting tiller development

The second N application was made when the plants had a main shoot and more than 5 tillers – this is optimal time that allows the plant to incorporate the nitrogen into grain filling process and contribute to protein content.  We saw an increase of 1.5% in protein content and yield above 15% above the farm average over the past 5 years

Variety Choice

It is important to choose a variety that helps you get the most out of your wheat crop. Last season, we planted a long maturing variety because we had an early planting window after taking off soybeans from the field. This allowed the crop to express its full potential as it had favourable weather conditions at different stages

The chosen variety had a higher yield potential as observed from the big grain heads and was also quite tall with some plants measuring 90cm. This combination of big heads and high plant height resulted in patchy lodging due to strong winds during the season.

Since wheat is irrigated in Zambia, we regulated irrigation schedules to ensure that on strong windy days, the wheat heads do not collect water and increase the head weight which causes plant stand imbalance and results in lodging

For consequent seasons, we are looking to incorporate growth regulators to maintain the crop height to a desired height that minimises lodging with affecting yields.  Although high winds are the culprit for crop lodging, we also noticed that some parts of the field that were not properly drained remained wet for extended periods and crops in these areas lodged

  • The longer maturing wheat variety usually have a high yield potential but what is key is to ensure that it is planted early. If you are farming in Zambia, try to plant in April and allow the crop to enjoy the cooler weather from May onwards


At harvest, the biggest challenge was how to deal with lodged wheat. Leaving lodged wheat in the field is the same as leaving your yield in the field

Thanks to the wide product range of equipment offered by AGCO Corporation we were able to circumvent this.  The Challenger 600cc is able to go slow, combining across the direction of the lodged wheat to ensure that feeding is effective. The operator made sure that the reel was forward and down so as to pick every wheat head and push it into the cutter ensuring all the wheat was combined. With the short harvesting times and uncertain whether conditions, having the right machinery can be the difference between a good yield and lost yield.  Machinery choice is key in all the aspects of production.

What challenges did you face and what lessons did you learn in the previous wheat season? Share with us on mail at


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