Winter Wheat: The Good of Grain

Winter Wheat: The Good of Grain

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Dorothy Rieke  Winter wheat may have the potential of changing agriculture across the Great Plains.   

My dad always raised winter wheat. He said the added income during July was appreciated. He also realized this crop’s vast advantages in retaining soil fertility.   

Mainly grown as a high-yielding, profitable cash crop in past days, winter wheat has played a role in preserving the environment through the years. It has provided most of the cover crop benefits of other cereals as well as grazing options before the spring plantings of other crops. With winter wheat, there is no reason to work the ground in early spring and risk compacting soil during wet conditions.  

Grown as cover crops or for grain, winter wheat adds rotation options for under seeding a legume, such as red clover or sweet clover for forage or nitrogen. It works well in no-till or reduced-tillage systems. It is often preferred over rye because it is less expensive and easier to manage during busy spring days.   

Benefits of Winter Wheat   

The benefits of this crop are numerous. It is known for erosion control, as a nutrient, as a cash crop as well as a cover crop, weed suppressor, soil builder, and organic matter source. In addition, it offers spring pasture. Best of all, it distributes farming operations while providing a good return on investments.   

Selecting Wheat Seed  

When selecting a winter wheat seed, be sure to consider yield as well as stand qualities, hardiness, the height of straw, and drought tolerance. Also, check the seed for insect and disease resistance.   

Planting Winter Wheat  

In some areas, the Hessian fly is destructive to wheat crops. With this in mind, winter wheat should be planted after October 15 to ensure a good stand. If planting earlier, search for a seed that is resistant to this insect. Drilling rates of a bushel for each acre are common; broadcasting may increase rates to 1.5 bushels per acre. Good seed-to-soil contact increases the ability for the seed to take root.   

Benefits of Wheat in Rotation  

Some producers include wheat in a corn-soybean rotation. This offers some great benefits for the quality and productive ability of soil. According to some recent studies, in evaluating the effects of wheat in rotation with corn and soybeans, wheat in this rotation increased corn yields by at least 10%. When wheat was followed by a cover crop such as red clover, corn yields were increased by about 15% over continuous corn.   

A well-established winter wheat crop provides excellent ground cover to prevent wind erosion during fall and winter days. Keeping the ground covered for as many months as possible results in improving and maintaining soil quality.  

Growing winter wheat after soybeans and then following wheat with a cover crop protects the land for 22 months. During this time, plant roots enhance microbial activity and nutrient cycling while improving soil aggregation.   

If wheat is sown in September or October, wheat breaks the cycle of pests and weeds that could become problems in the stand.

The decomposition of wheat roots with stubble contributes to the cycling of nutrients. Of course, the cover crop provides nitrogen, another benefit for the soil. Winter wheat maintains soil organic matter. It is estimated that two to two and a half tons of crop residue is needed each year to maintain soil organic matter. Winter wheat generates 100 pounds of crop residue per bushel.   

Winter Wheat as a Buffer Crop 

Winter wheat can serve as a buffer crop with effective filter strips and wind buffer strips. This leaves the physical condition of the soil without activity as there is minimal tillage, and trafficking usually occurs when the soil is not wet.   

If wheat is sown in September or October, wheat breaks the cycle of pests and weeds that could become problems in the stand. After wheat harvest, troublesome perennial weeds can be controlled.   

After harvest, soil moisture is usually ready for sub-soiling where there is compact soil that needs to be loosened. Also, cover crops may be planted at this time. Another idea is to apply lime, manure, or other corrective nutrient applications.   

Options for Utilizing Wheat as Cattle Feed  

Because of the higher protein content in wheat as compared to corn, cattle feeders include winter wheat to balance rations especially if wheat prices are low.   

One producer who focuses on raising cattle finds very good reasons for planting winter wheat. This producer plants winter wheat a little earlier to get more growth for grazing throughout the fall and winter. Once winter dormancy is broken, the cattle are removed to allow the wheat to mature with grain for a harvest. Other producers say that grazing is good for winter wheat.   

If winter wheat is intended for grazing, it should be seeded at a high rate of about 120 pounds of seed per acre. Also, wheat for pasture should be planted earlier about two or three weeks before the usual time. It seems that wheat is very vulnerable to Hessian flies, early-season armyworms, flea beetles, and wheat streak mosaic. Unless the fall is warm late into the season, forage production may not be sufficient for pasturing cattle if it is not planted early.   

Cattle should not be on pasture until there is crown root development to anchor the plants. Check plants to see that there is good root development. There should be six to 12 inches of top growth before pasturing wheat. Be sure the crown roots are difficult to pull out of the ground.  

If winter wheat is intended for grazing, it should be seeded at a high rate of about 120 pounds of seed per acre.

One Concern in Pasturing Wheat  

There is one other concern when pasturing wheat. Plants need extra nitrogen on the wheat because cattle remove nitrogen while grazing. For every 100 pounds per acre of animal grain, producers should apply another 40 pounds per acre of nitrogen to maintain grain yields.   

Options for Utilizing Wheat   

At times, because of the market conditions for wheat, along with the price and short availability of hay, growing wheat for grazing may have more value than harvesting it for grain. Actually, one acre of wheat in May and early June with enough moisture could offer 45 days or more of grazing for one cow-calf pair.   

In some cases, cattle feeding on wheat during May and early June, have experienced gains from one and a half to two and a half pounds per head per day. Especially after a hard winter, cow-calf pairs also benefit from this high-quality grazing.   

Another concern is that grazing wheat pasture also may get cow-calf pairs out of muddy conditions and onto clean ground benefiting calf health. Pasturing wheat may mean putting stock out to this pasture later, giving the pasture more time to establish good growth before cattle begin to graze.   

Of course, grazing wheat calls for considerations of fencing, water, and appointing sacrifice areas for cattle to use during wet weather. Also, to reduce the advent of grass tetany, high magnesium mineral supplements should be fed beginning two to four weeks before turning cattle out to pasture.   

Harvesting Wheat as Hay  

Another idea for using wheat is harvesting it as hay. This practice, during some years, may yield more dollars per acre than harvesting winter wheat for its grain. Count on two tons of hay per acre when harvesting wheat as a forage.   

There are some considerations with this practice. For example, if feeding young growing cattle, wheat hay should be cut in the boot stage to ensure good protein and energy content. The boot stage is at the time of the very early head-emergence growth stage.   

If fed to mature cows, harvest can be delayed to increase yield, but, in this case, the nutrition value will be sacrificed as well as palatability.   

If cutting wheat in the boot stage, consider planting a summer annual forage into the wheat stubble as another crop if moisture conditions are good.   

Winter wheat has been in existence for many years. However, during that time, producers worked with this crop and discovered its many advantages. This crop has excelled in winter survival and proved its value through excellent returns and quality. It reduces spring seeding time pressure, widens the fall harvest window, and has numerous environmental benefits. Indeed, it is a crop that has proved its value in past years and successfully combats some of the challenges facing producers today.   

DOROTHY RIEKE, living in southeast Nebraska, is married to Kenneth and has one daughter. She has lived on farms all her life and has raised both chickens and turkeys. 

Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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