Small grains making small steps back into crop rotations
Jared Goplen, a farmer and University of Minnesota Extension educator on crops and forage, is seeing more interest in small grains in traditional corn and soybean country for a few reasons: soil health, weed and pest management, and benefits to livestock operations.
CANBY, Minn. — Spring wheat is only a small percentage of Goplen’s acres in southwest Minnesota, but they are far from insignificant.
And Jared Goplen, who also serves as a University of Minnesota Extension educator on crops and forage, is seeing more interest in small grains in traditional corn and soybean country for a few reasons:
- Adding wheat into the crop rotation is a tool in weed and pest management.
- Prices for wheat and oats have been strong, making profitability more likely.
- He can use the crop to feed his livestock, perhaps more cheaply than buying feed, and also get some use out of the straw.
That leads to perhaps the most interesting reason Goplen plants wheat: He can get the crop off early enough to get alfalfa established in the same field, getting productivity out of those acres and essentially skipping an establishment year for his alfalfa.
“We’ve had really good luck with it,” said Goplen, who admits there is risk because it can be pretty dry when planting in August.
“Typically, you get just enough rain to get the plants going and then you have less weed pressure and you get a full year of production that year.”
On a cold and windy April 25, Goplen already had gotten one small field planted to wheat a couple days prior and was getting started on a second field, with the intention of planting alfalfa after wheat harvest.
He was working just northwest of Canby, while most of his acres and his cattle are closer to Dawson. There wasn’t much planting activity to be found elsewhere in his part of southwest Minnesota.
“There’s not a lot of small grains in this area,” Goplen said.
But he said soil moisture was just about optimal. To the south and west, he said things were drier while to north around Morris where his Extension office is, heavy fall rains had created some real wet spots.
“You don’t have to go very far and it goes from too much to not enough,” Goplen said of soil moisture.
He had heard of a farmer who had already dared plant some corn near Canby, but the temps were still too cold for most.
He said he could see some green poking up on an alfalfa field and hoped it wouldn’t be damaged by the overnight cold that night.
But small grains can handle the cold, allowing Goplen to get a jump on spring planting.
In the more traditional spring wheat growing regions of northwest Minnesota and the Dakotas, fields had just gotten another round of snow or rain, keeping farmers out of the fields.
Spring wheat acres have been shrinking in recent years, but Goplen and others say there is more interest in small grains in Minnesota, at least on a small scale.
Goplen has been part of an Extension small grains tour in southern Minnesota for the past five winters. He said a spike in oat prices got people’s attention before this year’s tour but then farmers can learn about some of the other benefits of small grains.
“People have a few fields here and there, maybe they’ve had some weed issues, some corn rootworm issues in their corn and soybeans, so people are looking for some other options,” Goplen said.
He has a field with waterhemp issues and is planting wheat there in hopes of getting a crop off before the waterhemp even has a chance to produce viable seeds.
“I figured it was a way to get on top of that, and I think a lot of people are in that same scenario where it’s a field-by-field case,” Goplen said.
Charlie Vogel, CEO of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, said that “weeds are just going to get tougher,” and concurred that small grains can play a role as a management tool.
“You’re going to see more complex rotations coming back,” Vogel said.
He also noted that trucking and supply issues also are an incentive for livestock producers to plant small grains. The crop can provide another homegrown feed source and straw for bedding, and a cover crop planted after harvest provides another area for grazing.
Alex Stade farms near New Prague, in southeast Minnesota, and has been able to find buyers, especially dairy farmers, for the straw from his fields of wheat and oats.
“A lot of people are looking for straw,” he said.
Vogel said small grains also are a part of the conversation for improving soil health in a world more focused on reducing its carbon footprint.
Competing for acres
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Even with tight global supplies and the Russian invasion of Ukraine helping drive up wheat prices, there has been only a small uptick in wheat acres in Minnesota and nationally.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture prospective plantings report on March 31 had spring wheat up about 4% over 2021 in Minnesota, while North Dakota spring wheat acres were down. Durum wheat, grown for pasta, was the area where North Dakota was adding acres.
There would perhaps be more interest if corn and soybeans weren’t just as strong, making it hard to convince growers to experiment with something new when their tried and true corn and soybeans look to be profitable, even in the face of high input prices.
Another barrier for those growers is equipment.
“If you rewind the clock 30 years, every farm still had a drill,” Goplen said. “That’s maybe not the case anymore.”
So that might mean renting a grain drill from a neighbor, or some Soil and Water Conservation Districts have drills available for rent.
As for those input prices, Goplen said the bad thing about wheat is that it still needs a lot of nitrogen.
“So your nitrogen expenses are going to be similar to corn,” Goplen said. “But the good news is we can get by typically with a little lower levels of P and K. “
So he said this year that savings might be $80 or $100 per acre of small grains versus corn.
Another area of savings is herbicide and fungicide, where small grains can typically get by with one application of each.
“So there might be some savings there,” Goplen said.
For those growers who might be considering working small grains back into a rotation next year, Goplen says to keep in mind some herbicide use will prevent planting small grains onto those acres the following year.
While corn and soybeans are looking profitable this year, input costs continue to be volatile, as do the markets, and perhaps a short-season crop with an early planting window is a hedge against wild weather, like the spastic spring 2022 has provided.
To that end, Goplen says a way to manage risk is “putting your eggs in different baskets.”
“I’m wanting to have a few eggs in that wheat basket.”