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Consider Wheat in Your Crop Rotation

Give wheat another chance in your crop rotation.

It would be easy to limit the acreage you plan to devote to wheat this fall or next spring (or eliminate it from the crop rotation all together), given the crop’s low prices. In September, Kansas City Wheat Futures were at $4.78 per bushel. That’s a bit better than the 2016 cash price, but it’s tough to be profitable at that level. Before you count wheat out, keep in mind three attributes of this crop.

1. It breaks the cycle

You can use a cereal grain like wheat to break up row-crop rotations, which can minimize disease and insect cycles. More importantly, wheat gives you a chance to get on top of tough-to-control weeds like kochia, waterhemp, Palmer amaranth, and marestail. Wheat is planted at a much higher rate than corn or soybeans to obtain a dense crop canopy, which can thwart weed emergence in the spring. Plus, you can use different herbicides on wheat, capitalizing on a much-needed different mode of action, says Rick Runyan, central Nebraska manager at Servi-Tech.

“After wheat harvest is when you can use some high-powered herbicides like gramoxone or 2,4-D to keep weeds at bay,” says Runyan, who advocates consecutive years of wheat before cycling to a summer annual crop. “The key is to get control of the weeds and stay on top of them.”

Dwayne Beck, agronomist at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota, says this of the benefits of a diverse crop rotation: “We have resistant weeds because farmers believed they didn’t have to worry about crop rotation to keep fields sanitary. Mother Nature is an opportunist.”

2. It offers options

In a no-till system, wheat stubble makes a perfect seedbed for corn or grain sorghum. Not only does it catch snow and preserve precipitation in the winter, but also it’s a high-carbon crop that protects the soil from wind erosion. 

Don’t discount the opportunities following wheat harvest. You can plant a double crop of soybeans, sunflowers, corn, or grain sorghum; you can plant a cover crop (or mix of cover crops) to boost soil health and provide winter grazing for a cowherd; or you can leave the field idle, letting the soil moisture recharge for the following row crop. 

You can also graze cattle on wheat (a common practice in Texas, Oklahoma, and southern Kansas). There are two options. 

  • Graze the wheat and remove cattle, thereby, taking the crop to harvest. 
  • Graze the crop out completely, then destroy it and plant the field in the spring.

3. It can give you a hunny of a yield

Wheat farmers know that a “Hunny” is a wheat yield in excess of 100 bushels per acre. It’s a rarity still in winter wheat country, but in this year’s Kansas Wheat Yield Contest, all three winners (based on east, central, and west regions) earned Hunnys, with the top yield reaching 121.48 bushels per acre. Leoti, Kansas, farmer Alec Horton achieved that yield with a new white wheat variety from the Kansas Wheat Alliance. He planted 375,000 seeds per acre of the wheat variety, "Joe."

The certified seed was treated with Vibrance Extreme (for disease) and SB4400 (a microbial treatment). The crop was topdressed with 90 pounds of nitrogen this spring and 3.5 ounces of Rave were applied then. Three fungicide applications were made: 2 ounces of Priaxor at Feekes 5, plus 4 ounces of Monsoon, and 6 ounces of Azoxy Star at Feekes 10. Horton also applied 3.84 ounces of the insecticide Ravage at Feekes 10.

Overall, the Kansas wheat crop averaged 50 bushels per acre, a record high. The Wheat Yield Contest winning entry proved, given top management and a little luck, that wheat can achieve incredible yields.

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