Wheat pencils out for growers
Not much wheat is grown south of Highway 212, yet that doesn’t discourage farmer and seed salesman Dick Stangler, Kilkenny.
For more than a decade, he has planted winter and spring wheat research plots to test which varieties would yield best in his region’s rolling clay loam soil. However, last year’s growing season was a challenge for wheat growers in southern Minnesota.
“We had the kind of winter and early spring that spelled trouble for winter wheat,” Stangler says. “We had a poor start in the fall of 2008 due to wet, cool weather at planting, and then fields were open in the winter with ice. I looked at more winter wheat fields than ever for possible replanting last spring, and some farmers interseeded spring wheat into stands. Some replanted the fields with corn and soybeans.”
• Weather challenges wheat, yet the crop can be profitable.
• Wheat in rotation reduces corn rootworm and SCN pressure.
• The snow blanket in February provided a good cover.
Early spring was cool and dry, conditions conducive for growing wheat. As the summer unfolded, both the winter wheat and the spring-planted wheat seemed to come around. Spring wheat yields in Stangler’s test plots ranged from 59 to 74 bushels per acre and from 14% to 15.2% protein. One salvaged winter wheat averaged 65 bushels and 12.7% protein.
As much as Stangler wanted to plant more winter wheat last fall, he couldn’t. Cool, wet weather delayed soybean maturity and harvest. He only seeded 20 acres instead of 200. And now he’ll have to more than double his corn acreage this spring.
“We’ll come back and do a more rounded rotation after this,” he says. His goal is to continuously rotate about one-third each of corn, soybeans and small grains on 1,600 acres.
“With a three-year rotation, we’ve helped our soybeans and corn,” he adds. Corn borer and soybean cyst nematode pressure is down or nonexistent, and some fields are disease-free.
“We’re on the fringe down here with growing wheat among larger corn and soybean farmers,” Stangler says. “But we’re able to benefit from crop rotations, and we’re able to capitalize on it.”
Ken Pomije, Montgomery, farms 800 acres, growing corn, soybeans, winter wheat, green peas and seed oats, and sells Golden Harvest corn and Northrup King soybeans. He likes how winter wheat provides some cash flow, evens out crop management, and provides crop rotational benefits. Plus, Pomije is an avid goose hunter. “I can still do that, too,” he adds. Last season, he harvested 17 geese.
“Wheat balances out my fieldwork. I like mixing it up,” he says. “Wheat breaks up the disease cycle [in corn and soybean rotations] and really helps guard against corn rootworm. Wheat also has been profitable for me.”
Pomije plants about 75 acres of winter wheat in fields after soybean and green pea harvest. With the peas, he can get the wheat into the ground around mid-September because the pea crop is harvested in July. With soybeans, wheat planting begins closer to Oct. 1 after the mid-September bean harvest.
“I need an earlier-maturing soybean to do that,” he says. “I try to plant a 1.3 maturity. With that, I’m not sacrificing any yield.”
Pomije waits until spring to fertilize and apply chemical. He broadcasts 80 pounds of urea during the first week of May, when the winter wheat is about 4 to 6 inches tall, and after dormancy. He teamed up with his brother and other farmers to hire a helicopter to aerially apply the fungicide Prosaro to protect against scab and leaf diseases. Timing of the fungicide application is critical. There’s about a five-day window, and it must be applied at heading, Pomije says. He doesn’t need any herbicide because the wheat grows so thick there is no space for weeds.
Even though the two winter wheat fields were planted about three weeks apart in the fall, both crops headed at the same time, and Pomije combined both fields within one to two days. He did note a yield difference last season because there was more growth on the winter wheat planted into pea ground. That field had 4 inches of growth going into winter and held the snow better, compared to the 2-inch growth of wheat sown into bean ground.
As harvesttime nears, Pomije keeps a close eye on the crop and the weather. He prefers to cut with a swather first, let the wheat dry a bit and then combine it.
“If the straw has some green tinge yet and 25% of the heads are tipping or leaning, I cut,” he says. At that stage, the wheat is about 15% to 16% moisture, and it needs two to three sunny, dry days to dry down to 13% moisture.
“I get a jump on getting it to the mill this way and get a premium,” he adds.
The price paid for wheat was down last year and, accordingly, so was Pomije’s net profit from the crop. Still, it was higher than his net profit on corn, according to his FINPACK farm business management records. His net return per acre of wheat was $57; corn, $52; soybeans, $82; green peas, $290.
“Normally, wheat is up to $200 per acre, but the wheat price was $5.74, and expenses ate up a lot, too,” he says. “Expenses on wheat, including rent, were $352 per acre. Expenses for corn were $569 per acre and beans, $336.”
Pomije is optimistic about his wheat, currently dormant under a heavy snow blanket.
“This winter should be good with our snow cover,” he says. “But you never know. If we get ice in March, it could smother the wheat. Weather is 70% and management is 30% when it comes to crop yields. It’s the same for corn and soybeans. You can have all the genetics, but if you don’t get the rain, it won’t yield.”
This article published in the March, 2010 edition of THE FARMER.