Corn and soybeans are grudgingly making room for wheat in the crop rotation on more Corn Belt farms. The crop gives innovative growers a midsummer opportunity to enhance income, reduce input costs, boost soil health, and accomplish other sustainability goals. University of Nebraska extension educator Nathan Mueller emphasizes those benefits to farmers in eastern Nebraska, where most have only a distant memory of growing the crop. Four years ago he  launched a Winter Wheat Works Initiative to spread his message.

“We’ve worked extensively with a group of farmers in five counties to demonstrate how wheat can pay its way in corn and soybean rotations. Genetic advancements have made wheat yields upwards of 140 bushels per acre possible, but it’s not yield alone that makes winter wheat profitable. There’s often a favorable basis in the market in eastern Nebraska as well as a strong local market for straw. Other benefits include the opportunity to plant late summer forage crops, incorporate cover crops, apply manure, and reduced soil erosion and nutrient loss in the high-risk spring months.”

“In addition, more diverse crop rotation can play a fundamental role in managing yield-limiting factors, breaking weed cycles and boosting the yield of corn and soybeans following wheat,” adds Mueller.

Farmers agree. The group of growers that Mueller works with finds that wheat lives up to those merits. “The mindset of most growers is that wheat makes 50 to 60 bushels per acre. But if you manage it like corn and soybeans it can make over 100 bushels per acre, and that doesn’t pencil out too bad,” says Pender, Nebraska, farmer Randy Rink.

Nathan Mueller is helping farmers in eastern Nebraska squeeze wheat into their corn/soybean rotations.

“Our crop rotation includes wheat every fifth year, and we want to have some wheat stubble available every year as a place to spread manure. It’s cheap fertilizer, and the feedlots near me are always looking for a place to haul in midsummer,” he says.

Rink uses the wheat year to grow a cover crop since there’s more time to maximize the soil health benefits. “Frankly, learning more about growing wheat has made me a better corn grower,” he adds.

Fairbury, Nebraska, farmer Mark Knobel also likes the soil health benefits that wheat brings to his four-crop rotation. “We follow a corn/soybean/wheat-sunflower double-crop rotation, to produce four crops in three years. Wheat provides residue to protect the soil, and the fibrous root system delivers better soil tilth than corn or soybeans,” he says.

It’s not easy adding crops to a traditional corn/soybean rotation, so you need a systems approach. “Our crop
diversity helps in a lot of ways, including keeping weeds like Palmer amaranth in check,” he adds.

July wheat harvest provides a great opportunity to establish cover crops for grazing, a key benefit for Herman, Nebraska, farmer Greg Hoegermeyer. “We apply manure on the stubble and then plant a cover crop to graze in the fall. We like a lot of radishes in our cover crop mix because the cattle love them, and the tubers leave holes in the ground that take in rainfall, yet the soil dries quicker in the spring. It leaves a great seedbed for planting,” he says.

Mueller says farmers are finding that the potential income from baling wheat straw is another reason to grow the crop. “Because wheat acres are limited, we have a strong local market for straw—primarily as bedding for dairy, beef and hog producers.”

Straw sells for $80 to $140 per ton, and you can typically get two tons per acre depending on how low you cut
the wheat. The baling, loading and hauling can cost $60 to $80 per acre,  which means you can walk away with over $100 per acre in profit, he adds.

Mark Knobel grows wheat as part of a three-year rotation to provide residue that protects the soil and improves structure and health.

Pointers on production. Mueller says variety selection, planting date, and disease control are the major management factors that impact successful wheat production in his area. Test plot results showed variety selection was critical, with an 18 bu/acre difference in yield between varieties. The use of a fungicide application at the flag leaf stage delivered a 16 bu/acre benefit.

Planting date is the third critical factor, and it’s closely tied to the progress of soybean harvest, Mueller believes.

“I compared our wheat yields to the USDA soybean harvest report using October 15 as a target date. Wheat yields were 15 bushels per acre higher when soybean harvest was 80% completed by that date, compared to years when harvest was 40% complete,” he says.

“Getting wheat planted just a few days earlier can be significant, and growers may want to consider planting shorter season soybeans to get that advantage. There’s not much yield loss to planting a high yielding variety in the 2.6 maturity range compared to one in the 3.4 maturity range, but you can get wheat planted ten days earlier.”

Get more information on Winter Wheat Works at croptechcafe.org/winterwheat. 

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