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7 Ways Wheat Can Boost Crop Rotation

Gleaming golden small grain fields historically punctuated the grassy green pastures of northeastern South Dakota’s rolling hills and prairie.

“We had lots of wheat and barley and very little soybeans and corn,” says Dan Nigg, who farms where he grew up near Sisseton, South Dakota.

Most pasture remains. Cropland, though, now mimics a mini Iowa, with corn and soybean acres eclipsing those of small grains. From 2011 to 2012, South Dakota corn and soybean acreage increased 15% and 10%, respectively. Meanwhile, winter wheat and spring wheat acreage dropped 18% and 12%, respectively, says Ruth Beck, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension field specialist for agronomy.

Plunging row-crop prices coinciding with barely budging input prices may be changing that mix, though. These days, wheat has a bottom-line benefit.

“Wheat can be (net return) competitive with soybeans and corn,” says Nigg.

Wheat production isn’t limited to the Upper Midwest, either. Allen Henry, who farms near Indianola in south-central Iowa, has grown winter wheat the last several years for grain and wheat straw.

“It is just another way for me to diversify,” he says. “It breaks up my weed and bug cycles, and it helps make the tilth of my ground a little better.”

Not all is rosy with wheat. Winterkill is a huge hazard for winter wheat if bone-chilling temperatures result and sufficient snowfall does not occur.  Wet spring weather can also nix spring wheat planting.

“I abandoned my (spring) wheat in 2013 just for the simple fact it was May 10, and it just got too late,” says Nigg.

Overall, though, wheat has been a hit in Nigg’s rotation. Below are seven reasons why wheat may have bottom-line benefits in your rotation, too.

1. Wheat can better yields of your other crops. 

Data from a 2013 Dakota Lakes Research Farm rotational study at Pierre, South Dakota, showed the impact rotational diversity has on corn yields.
  • Continuous corn: 203 bushel per acre.
  • Corn-soybean: 217 bushels per acre.
  • Corn-corn-soybean-wheat-soybean: 235 bushels per acre.

A 12-year University of Illinois (U of I) study found adding wheat to a corn-soybean rotation boosted corn yields by about 10 bushels per acre and soybean yields by 3 to 5 bushels per acre, says Emerson Nafziger a U of I Extension agronomist.

Bottom-line benefit: Including wheat in a rotation can spark single-digit per acre yield increases in soybeans and double-digit increases in corn.  

2. Including wheat in a corn-soybean mix can lower costs.

When Dwayne Beck managed the now defunct James Valley Research Center near Redfield, South Dakota, he helped northeastern South Dakota farmers develop diverse corn-soybean-wheat-cover crop rotations.

“Basically, the production costs for these are 50% of what a corn and soybean rotation would be,” says Beck, who now manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm.“So essentially, they can grow wheat for free.”

Bottom-line benefit: Diversifying a corn-soybean rotation with wheat can slice rotational production costs by one half.

3. Wheat can spark profitability...but not across the board.

In 2011, Thomas Zimmerman, a North Dakota State University graduate student, analyzed 16 rotations at the Conservation Cropping Systems Project (CCSP) near Forman, North Dakota.

The winner? A spring wheat/winter wheat/corn/soybean/corn/soybean rotation. Its net return blitzed that of a corn-soybean rotation by $20.20 per acre.

That’s not the case all over, though. On prime farmland, the yield boost incurred by including wheat in a rotation doesn’t cover the loss incurred by forgoing a row crop, says Nafziger.

“Unless wheat is double-cropped or if additional income is derived from straw (on high-yield farmland), wheat doesn’t compete well as a cash crop with corn and soybean,” says Nafziger.

Bottom-line benefit: Yield increases can spark profitability in some areas. That may not be the case, though, in prime farmland areas like central Illinois.

4. Wheat can make your corn-soybean soil healthier. 

The platy soil structure incurred by a corn-soybean rotation slices soil water infiltration and strangles root uptake of nutrients and water, says Jason Miller, an NRCS agronomist based in Pierre, South Dakota.

A field in a rotational study at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm had been rotated between corn and soybeans for 20 years. After wheat followed by a cover crop cracked the rotation, irregular soil blocks replaced the soil plates. This switch increased water infiltration and enabled roots to access more nutrients and water.

“After one year, the wheat and cover crop dramatically changed the soil structure,” says Miller. “The difference was unbelievable.”

Bottom-line benefit: Curbing compaction through steps like these can erase the 5% to 10% yield decrease that compaction typically inflicts, says Randall Reeder, retired Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer. 

5. A diverse rotation helps manage weeds. 

“You couldn’t sit at a blackboard and draw up a production system more favorable to weeds than a corn-soybean rotation,” says Bob Hartzler, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension weed specialist. “They are two summer crops with nearly identical planting and harvesting dates. In many cases, we use the same control tactics in both crops. It’s simple for weeds to beat that system.”

A multiyear ISU study examined a corn-soybean rotation and showed that inclusion of these crops with small grain and legumes in three- and four-year rotations effectively suppressed weeds.

“This was despite backing off herbicides in the three- and four-year systems,” says Matt Liebman, an ISU agronomist.

Bottom-line benefit: Diverse rotations can slice weed pressure and controlcosts. Per acre rotational herbicide costs in the ISU study were the following:

  • Corn-soybeans: $28.18.
  • Corn-soybean-oats/red clover: $18.17
  • Corn-soybeans-oats/alfalfa-alfalfa: $14.09

6. A rotation-cover crop combo can boost marginal farmland soil quality. 

“When land rents started going up in my area, it got harder to expand,” says Nigg. “I have marginal ground that is not good corn ground. I got to thinking that I could take this marginal ground and push it with wheat.”

By itself, wheat can help boost yields and profits by increasing soil tilth and water infiltration. Cover crops double soil health efforts and also have perks like breaking compaction and adding soil carbon to boost organic matter. Even on sandy soils, Nigg’s organic matter tallies an Iowa-like 5%.

Bottom-line benefit: “A 1% increase in organic matter will boost water infiltration 0.4 inches,” says NRCS’s Miller.  “A 1% increase is a $24-per-acre value in increased nutrients and infiltration.”

7. Diversifying a rotation can reduce weather risk.

The 2012 drought didn’t fully form in most of South Dakota until late into the wheat-growing season. Since wheat uses little water at this time, above-average South Dakota wheat yields occurred in a drought year,  says SDSU’s Beck.

Not so with corn. At tasseling, corn can consume up to .33 inches of rain daily. In 2012, the steadily accelerating drought hit corn during this peak time and pummeled yields.

Bottom-line benefit: Spiking a row-crop rotation with wheat can lessen weather risk of a corn-heavy rotation. Severe stress can slice corn yields 8% per day during silking and pollen shed, says Bob Nielsen, Purdue Extension agronomist.

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