Thursday, October 23, 2014

Planting Wheat

I finished up planting one field of wheat on Wednesday, (about 75 acres in a day and a half), somehow managed to take a few halfway decent photos with my phone so I thought I'd post them and write a little bit about what I know about growing wheat.

Locally, winter wheat is grown for grazing only, dual purpose (grazing and grain), or grain only.

If someone is planning on grazing out their wheat they'll usually try to plant it a lot earlier (early to mid September) to get more forage in the fall, then they'll graze it until about April or May.  I've heard two different schools of thought on the planting rate, one is that the earlier you plant the lower the rate of seed you need (~60 lb. or 1 bushel per acre) since wheat will compensate by tillering more if it's planted earlier.  The other claim is that you need to plant an even higher rate of seed (2 to 3 bu./acre) because more seed means more plants which gives you more forage.  Most of the fertility (nitrogen and possibly phosphorus) is applied at planting in the fall to help produce more forage.

Wheat grown for grain can be planted much later in the year (up until December 1 if you want to get crop insurance) since to get a decent grain yield, wheat only needs to produce 3-4 tillers before going dormant in the winter.  For grain only, about a third of the nitrogen is applied at planting, then it will be topdressed in the spring with the rest of the nitrogen to hopefully produce more grain instead of more straw.  

Most of the wheat I'm planting is dual-purpose wheat for both grazing and grain.  Dual-purpose wheat is planted and managed somewhere in between grazing-only and grain-only.  I try to plant at least 90 lb./acre in mid-October with about half of my nitrogen applied to get some forage in the fall, then I'll topdress the other half of the nitrogen in mid-February (depending on how much moisture we've gotten, etc.).

But, the winters have been so dry or the rain came at the wrong time for the last 4-5 years that I haven't had any decent wheat pasture so I haven't really had any dual-purpose wheat for awhile.  It would be nice to be able to graze some wheat pasture, but the price of wheat was high enough in most of those years that for awhile I was thinking that growing wheat for the grain might make more sense.  Now, as the price for wheat has went down and cattle prices have went up even more, it might make more sense to graze more of that wheat (although wheat pasture is better suited to grazing stockers than grazing cows).

I switched to no-till about four years ago, so I was able to no-till my wheat into some relatively weed-free crabgrass stubble (much better than my tillage days when the dust would be blowing while I was trying to plant my wheat).  I really like drilling wheat into crabgrass stubble and the way it makes a nice layer of mulch after the coulters slice through it (it could pour down rain right now and I wouldn't have much erosion).

When people think about wheat fields, they probably imagine big flat fields of wheat (I assume), but all the fields I farm are far from flat and have terraces running around the contours.  It's hard to fully capture in a photo, but I've always liked the look of the patterns of the curves of the terraces running across the field.  The photos I'm posting show a little bit of that "look", but you might need to see it in person to understand what I'm talking about.

As a reference, at it's steepest part, this field drops about 45-50 feet in around 900 feet which you can almost see in some of the photos, and the horizon in all the photos is level, which might help you imagine the slope of the terraces.
Going south, drilling wheat along the back of the steepest terrace

Heading north, drilling wheat along the back of the same steep terrace

Going around the hill, following a terrace near the top of the hill, sorghum-sudangrass in the background

Finishing the field at the top of the hill, just in time for the rain


  1. Back when I was still on the farm, we used to plant a little winter wheat for grain but we rarely got good yields and when we did, the prices were so depressed that it almost didn't cover the fuel to haul it to town. But as my brother and I left the farm and fall time to plant the wheat came at a premium, my parents have given up planting any. About the only time they plant wheat these days is as a cover crop when land comes out of CRP program.

    Even though you have terraces, that is still flat ground compared to our rolling hills. We have a few places with so many terraces and switchbacks that I've almost gotten lost at night trying to find my way out.

    1. With the combination of cattle and wheat, if the price falls too low, there's always the option to graze out the wheat or bale it for hay.

      The closest I've came to considering not planting wheat any more was back in 2008 (I think?) when fuel and fertilizer prices went up fast while the wheat price went down. Trying to cut my fuel costs was one of the reasons that I switched to no-till.

      I'm about at my limit trying to maneuver an eight-row planter on our terraces, I'd hate to have to deal with some of those 12 or 16 row planters everyone seems to use in Iowa with the type of terraces you describe.

    2. Most of our terraces are sized for a 12 row planter though I think they have a couple that are sized for 24 rows. Probably half of our terraces are what we call steep back terraces where you can't plant. They are seeded down in prairie type grasses.

      I've hit my share of terrace risers over the years which means after the work day is done for everyone else, my father would send me out with a shovel and parts to fix the one I knocked down. It didn't take me long before I went really really slow around them.

    3. The terraces around here are broad-based terraces and are farmed on both sides of the terraces.

      Apparently, my grandfather was an artist with the plow and could easily maintain those terraces by moving the back furrow this way and that (I still don't fully understand exactly how you should plow to fix a wet spot in a terrace channel with a single pass with the plow).

      But, when I started farming, Grandpa had been gone a long time, the previous renter didn't really maintain them, and I had to put in a lot of work to get the terrace channels back at about 20 feet from the top of the terrace so I could easily use a planter along the terrace. Using anything bigger than an 8-row planter would probably need some major reworking of the terraces.

  2. I'm guessing my grandfather could have done the same thing with a plow. For me though, I remember seeing an old plow in the shed out back when I was a young boy playing out there. I've never run one or seen one used other than the single gang affairs the local amish use.

    I got sent out to fix terraces with the tractor and scoop which needed an artistry too. These days, my dad has an earth mover that he uses. It is much much faster and does a better job fixing terraces, draining wet spots, etc.

    1. I lucked out and found a good five bottom plow (5-20 in. bottoms so it plows about 8-ft wide) for cheap, and I used it to plow most of the terraces when I was fixing them.

      When I could manage to do everything right or was going in a straight line, it would plow like a dream, but there were times when I would make a horrendous mess (especially when I was trying to go around some of the curves in those terraces).

      After I finally got those terraces fixed, the plow has been parked in the corner of a field. It's one of those pieces of equipment that isn't really worth anything (although it's almost the same design as a new plow), but would be hard to replace, so it's in long term storage. Hopefully I won't ever need to use it again unless I rent or buy some land that needs the terraces fixed.

  3. Replies
    1. I took all those photos with my iPhone (it's not even the newest, gotta have it version). If I'd known that I could get some halfway decent photos with it, I would have started taking more photos a long time ago.

      Except for the last photo, I didn't even stop the tractor to take a photo. I either held it up in front of me or held it out of the back window (hoping I wouldn't drop it and run the drill over it) and pushed the button a few times.

      It almost makes me want to upgrade my phone since supposedly it's possible to take better photos with the newer ones.