By Matt Reese
It is hard not to love the early green-up, the amber waves and the rotational benefits of Ohio’s winter wheat crop, but quality challenges, management issues and prices have eroded away acreage in recent years. In 2017, there were only 435,000 winter wheat acres harvested in Ohio, the lowest acreage on record. Planted acreage for the 2018 harvest was up to 530,000 acres, but still just a fraction of the Ohio acreage from years gone by.
Wheat, however, continues to be a part of the rotation for Ben Bowsher who farms in Allen and Auglaize counties.
“It has fit into our operation for a few reasons. We use it to do some fertility work and tile projects and there is overall profitability with selling the straw and the double-crop soybeans. Wheat also is a cover crop and it a great crop to hold the ground in the fall through the winter and tie up nutrients that could move. I think it is a benefit to break up the corn bean rotation too. It is a nice fit with the entire package. Wheat was one of our better crops over the last several years,” Bowsher said. “There are a couple farms that are 50-50 with the landlords and we use it on those farms and on our own ground in the rotation or if we need to do some tiling or fertility work. This was one of our better wheat crops this year and if you look at the wheat, the straw, and the double-crops, wheat has actually been more profitable than corn or soybeans.”
Statewide, the wheat crop was a fairly good one in 2018. Heading into harvest this summer Ohio’s winter wheat crop was rated 20% excellent and 63% good, according the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. In most cases, despite some wet weather challenges, wheat was harvested in a fairly timely manner. The week ending July 8 had Ohio’s wheat 68% harvested, which was just behind the rapid progress of 2017’s harvest, but well ahead of the 42% five year average.
Bowsher’s recipe for profitable wheat starts with timely planting.
“We got it in timely last fall. We planted on the fly free date and there really wasn’t any damage over winter. Most of the time we had snow cover when it was cold and I don’t know that we really lost any tillers over the winter,” Bowsher said. “I was a little concerned about when we were going to get the nitrogen on in the spring. It was early April when we first got in to topdress it. I topdressed it and turned right back around, sprayed for weeds and gave it a second shot of N. Then the fungicide application was right on time and we were able to get it harvested in a timely manner.”
Fungicide on the wheat is standard procedure for Bowsher.
“We spray fungicide on it every year. We used a helicopter this year the weekend before Memorial Day to spray,” he said. “We did some side-by-side comparisons and it was always a benefit. Now it is just part of our planned program to spray fungicide. It gives us better straw quality and better grain quality.”
Good timing for harvest is vital to maintain the quality of the crop, but also to maximize the profit potential from the wheat acres.
“It was good quality this year. It came out of the field dry — it dried down faster than we could harvest,” Bowsher said. “In this area there have been quality issues, so we always push it with wheat. If it is below 20% moisture I’ll spend the time and money to cut it versus risking a quality issue and delaying harvest. I try to cut it wet for quality, get the straw baled and get double-crops in. July 4 is when I like to get them in by.”
Double-cropping soybeans has become an important part of the profitability of the wheat acres for Bowsher.
“Over the last 10 years or so we have double-cropped,” he said. “Anything above 15 bushels for double-crops is worth harvesting and we probably have a low 20 average for double-crop yields and last year they were right around 30 across the board. This year it was June 29 when we started harvest, which is fairly normal and we started planting double-crops July 2. Then we got a nice rain and we have had more rain since. I finished planting double-crop beans on July 9. There was moisture there and they came up pretty quickly. I planted on a Monday and they were out of the ground on Friday.”
Timely planting for the soybeans depends on the straw baling process too.
“We just sell the windrows and guys come in and bale it. We have had a good buyer come in the last few years now,” Bowsher said. “They know we plan on planting double-crops and they are cognizant of our time.”
While there are plenty of benefits to wheat it requires careful management from start to finish to be successful.
“When it is time to do wheat there is no waiting a day or two. Planting, nitrogen application, weed, control, fungicide application and harvest — you have to do it when it needs done,” Bowsher said. “It is a little more workload in the fall trying to get it planted and the big thing with wheat is the timing. When it is time, you can’t put it off. It is a high management crop.”
Ohio State University Extension experts recommend a number of practices to get the wheat crop off to a solid start this fall. Agronomist Harold Watters offers some tips.
- Planting date — The fly free date in Ohio is also our agronomic trigger for the best planting dates. From recent experience we probably want to plant within the week to 10 days after the date. Long-term data says we should get about the same yield if we plant in the 14-day window following fly free. Fly free dates in Ohio range from Sept. 22 in northern Ohio to Oct. 5 at Southpoint.
- Application of phosphorus — nutrient movement can be reduced by applying the fertilizer in the spring into the growing crop. If, for example, 90 pounds of P2O5 is needed, 20 to 35 pounds of nitrogen comes along with that (assuming MAP 11-52-0 or DAP 18-46-0). This puts on the N when it is needed in the spring and provides growing crop for phosphorus application.
- Variety selection — Get good genetics with excellent disease resistance. Pierce Paul says that to reduce the threat of Fusarium head blight and to get good yields, choose a variety with high resistance to head scab and plan to apply a fungicide if conditions require.
- Row width — Using a drill, wheat can be planted at 6 to 10 inches. There are many split-row soybean planters in 15-inch rows. It gets a cover out there and doesn’t take too great of a yield hit. Some Ohio wheat producers are interested in growing soft red winter wheat in 15-inch rows to use a more precise planting implement to reduce equipment inventory, reduce wheat seed costs, sow a cover crop, establish a forage crop, or to Modify Relay Intercrop (MRI) soybeans into wheat.