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Wheat makes a comeback in crop rotation

Go back just one generation and we would never be having the dis­cussion of a crop rotation without a small grain such as wheat in the mix. Nor would our dads or grandads believe they were reading an article of the benefits of going back to such a rotation. It’s just another example of “never say never.”

Wheat and corn are grown around the world, with many new areas coming into production over the past few decades. The added acreage, along with new wheat varieties and higher yields, have encouraged wide market swings recently—especially with earlier-maturing varieties and improved opportunity to double crop soybeans. Global turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged a surge in the market, prompting many growers to add wheat back to their crop rotation.

Insects, diseases and weeds

When you read the title of this article, I bet you were expecting me to tell you wheat is great in rotation because it provides additional her­bicide options and buffers from dis­ease. Sorry for the disappointment, but that’s not really the case. Many of the same diseases and vectors in other crops, such as corn, also affect wheat. For example, the same pathogen that causes head scab in wheat also presents as gibberella stalk rot in corn. Wheat herbicides also rely heavily on ALS chemis­try, which we have used in corn production in the past. This negates the idea of using novel chemistry to give us a break from resistant weeds. Because we typically follow wheat with a double-crop soybean, there is also no break from soybean cyst nematode or soybean disease and insect pests.

This is not to say wheat isn’t bene­ficial. There are many advantages to growing a small grain cash crop, but they may not be what immediately comes to mind.

Soil health implications

A corn-soybean crop rotation really isn’t much of a rotation when you look at the history of agriculture. A true rotation uses at least three crops grown in sequence. This practice is much better at breaking weed, dis­ease and pest cycles. Rotations also have big impacts on the structure, function and biological activity in agricultural soils. Soil biology is often overlooked and misunderstood in modern crop production. Resi­due is the food for soil biology that can help move production to the next level. We need to balance and manage the makeup of that residue, especially the carbon within.

With half of a corn-soybean rotation consisting of low-carbon, quickly degrading soybean residue, many times soils are lacking for high-carbon residue. This leads to bare soils, increased erosion, decreased organic matter, decreased nutrient cycling and many other lon­ger-term effects. Adding wheat into the mix provides a large tonnage of good, high-carbon residue, which can positively impact soil function, soil biology, water retention and crop performance from all crops in rotation.

Also, for even more soil improve­ments, wheat leaves a window to re­ally get creative with cover crops and increasing diversity. Some summer cover crop species leach 60% to 75% of the carbon they photosynthesize back into the soil. Talk about feeding soil health!

Cash flow and workload

Working capital is one of the positive aspects of adding some cash-crop wheat. This is an area where many operations struggle. Much of the farm income arrives during one short part of the calendar year. Wheat spreads out cash flow and brings in credits to the spreadsheet at a time of year when there are ma­jor bills to pay. This can take some stress off operating lines. When wheat prices are good like they cur­rently are, this reason alone can be enough to tip the scales in its favor.

Along those lines, wheat has a positive effect on workload. Wheat can be planted behind the combine and spreads out the fall harvest, even with double-crop soybeans. Typically, those beans won’t cut until late fall, long after full-season soybeans. This reduces the amount of standing crop waiting for harvest.

With today’s market conditions, you have likely already thought about adding wheat into your crop rotation. Take a day this summer, sit down and figure wheat production into your budget with 2022 prices. Add in the fact that we can at times achieve some very respectable yields on double-crop soybeans or the possibility of improving the soil with a summer cover crop.

It’s important to manage wheat properly and intensively for it to work as a cash crop in your rota­tion. “Cash crop” are the key words that distinguish it from wheat as a cover crop. Vigilant scouting, proper application timing and the right tank mixes are critical to growing high-yielding, high-quality wheat. This makes wheat a great fit for us­ing MFA Crop-Trak or other agron­omy services. I think you’ll find that wheat can add more than just black to the bottom line.

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