Many farmers like Paul Leiseth, Hazel, SD, yanked wheat out of their crop lineup in the late 1980s. “It was a dollar-and-cents issue,” he says. “Corn and soybeans kicked the pants off wheat.”
But that's changing. New technology and recent high prices revamped wheat's benchwarmer status. In Leiseth's case, he wanted a no-till crop to complement no-till soybeans. Due to the high elevation where he farms in northeastern South Dakota, no-till corn struggled under cool spring temps.
No-till winter wheat, however, thrived under those conditions. In 1997, his average wheat yields ran over 70 bu/acre, far above that year's state average of 30 bu/acre.
“It was fabulous,” he says.
“There were parts of the field that went over 100 bu/acre.”
Wheat has also piqued the interest of eastern Corn Belt farmers; it yielded well before the full force of the 2002 drought hit, says Pat Lipps, Ohio State University plant pathologist. Wheat futures also recently hit a five-year high on the Chicago Board of Trade.
“When you're looking at a wheat crop that you can get 80-90 bu off at a reasonable price, vs. (drought-stressed) soybeans where you're only looking at 20 bu, crop production reads as a very different story for growers,” says Lipps.
Wheat is a natural complement to corn and beans, too. For example, rotating corn with soybeans has traditionally controlled corn rootworm. But now in many areas this insect has adapted to the rotation. Including wheat in a corn/soybean rotation stops it.
“Planting wheat throws a curve at these pests because it breaks the cycle,” says Leiseth.
Wheat also positively affects yields of other crops in the rotation. Michigan State University researchers report that corn yields increase 10-18% when corn follows soybeans and wheat. Although reasons for the increase aren't clear, some agronomists theorize that wheat likely mobilizes nutrients in the soil to benefit the next crop.
Corn and soybean farmers may also spread workloads by raising wheat. “We can plant winter wheat when we aren't that busy in September,” says Leiseth.
But farmers must add sufficient inputs to wheat to make it viable in a rotation. Leiseth normally sets a winter wheat yield goal of 80 bu/acre and applies 2.4 lbs of nitrogen per bushel. He also applies fungicides twice a year to prevent yield-robbing diseases.
“Still, scab has been a big problem,” says Leiseth. “But even if there isn't scab, there have been lots of leaf diseases the past few years.”
Planting wheat isn't risk-free, either, especially with its susceptibility to winterkill.
Leiseth reduces winterkill potential by planting winter wheat in mid-September, the recommended time for his area. This enables the wheat to achieve a healthy stand going into the winter. To ensure timely planting, Leiseth picks early maturing soybean varieties for those fields.