Invest in wheat like any other crop to harness its potential
A mere 20 years ago, cotton was cash in the South and farmers filled low spots with soybeans, leaving wheat as the great pauper—relegated to the worst acreage or simply not grown. Farmers often threw out wheat seed, tossed on two shots of fertilizer, put on 2,4-D as an afterthought and cut wheat with a resigned attitude: “It is what it is.” A good yield was 40 bu. per acre.
The king cotton era has faded, but despite the passage of time and hard economic realities, many farmers are raising wheat in a time warp, still shackled to minimal management.
Pete Hunter, Stovall Farms, Clarksdale, Miss., isn’t shy about harnessing wheat’s potential. Although Hunter knows the past highs of cotton production, he’s spent 12 years honing his wheat management with soil testing, tissue testing, timely fertilizer, aphid spraying, fungicide treatments, matching variety with soil and hitting the right planting population.
In a year of tight margins, double-cropping wheat and soybeans will pay the bills for Pete Hunter, Stovall Farms, Clarksdale, Miss.
In the fall of 2014, Hunter was penciling numbers, calculating profit potential and foretelling tight margins across his farm for 2015. He made the decision to plant as much wheat as time allowed and focus on the wheat-soybean combination as a black-ink factor—an essential component for profits in 2015.
“I would have planted our entire farm in wheat, but weather didn’t give me enough of a window,” he notes.
Stovall Farms has 3,200 wheat acres headed toward early June harvest. In an era when costs of production force growers to keep a tight lid on expenses, wheat management has afforded Hunter tremendous yield gains. His five-year wheat average is 77 bu. per acre, and his five-year average for soybeans behind wheat is 48 bu. per acre.
“I went heavy with wheat in the fall because double-cropping is about the only thing that will pay the bills this year,” Hunter says. “In my opinion, cotton is no man’s land, and soybeans alone won’t bring in enough money. However, wheat at 70 bu. to 90 bu. per acre and soybeans at 50 bu. per acre behind the wheat will pay the bills.”
In the early 1990s, Hunter might have planted 5,000 cotton acres and 140 wheat acres in a typical year, but the tables have turned and Stovall Farms continues to take a bigger look at wheat as a major investment.
“Wheat is an avenue toward profit because it’s my primary crop on the farm and will be until it’s cut,” Hunter says. “Therefore, I treat wheat like my own child to gain maximum yield.”
Hunter uses two AgriMaxx varieties across his wheat acres—both have high yield potential, but one thrives in dry soil and the other can handle water.
He pays particular attention to variety selection, seed treatments and top-to-bottom management.
“Land today is just so costly, and young farmers in particular have to make maximum yield on every square foot,” he notes. “What’s the bottom line? You’re only going to get out of wheat what you put into wheat. Don’t leave yield sitting in the field.”
Many farmers are enticed by wheat due to cash flow. It’s a solid source of June income when operation expenses run tight. Delta farmers often grow wheat when prices are higher or when other commodity prices drop. Low commodity prices generally push producers toward double-cropping.
“Grow good wheat and then turn around with good beans, aiming for $1,000 per acre gross profit,” advises Wayne Dulaney, Dulaney Seed, Clarksdale, Miss., who farms 4,000 acres and serves as the lead agronomist for AgVenture Mid-South. “Certainly in the past three years, we’ve watched wheat acres build in the mid-South as prices increase. In the mid-90s, when wheat bumped $4, we’d plant the world out of it. Right now, everybody wants it to be $6 in order to plant.”
Thanks to better genetics and intentional management, Wayne Dulaney, farmer, seed salesman and agronomist for AgVenture Mid-South, has seen a big increase in yields.
In 2011, Dulaney felt wheat seed had hit a yield wall and fallen behind advances in corn and soybeans. He decided to try several new varieties, including AgriMaxx. That year, he “cut wheat like never before,” he says.
Yields jumped 15 bu. per acre across the region in 2011, Dulaney recalls, and farmers who hadn’t grown wheat in a decade took notice of the yield bumps. Since then, the soft red wheat industry has continued to make significant leaps in Southern wheat genetics.
“The potential was easy to see,” Dulaney notes. “If I made 70 bu. on heavy clay soil, what might happen if I combine that with techniques from the Maximum Profit System [MPS]?”
MPS was developed by agronomist Paul Bodenstine, Ag Systems, Ashland, Va., and involves total management in wheat.
“Bodenstine woke us up to how important zinc is to wheat, and we started using zinc seed treatments,” Dulaney says. He explained why neonicotinoid and Cruiser seed treatments were vital in keeping early wheat protected from microbugs.
Bodenstine emphasizes the importance of using growing degree days as a timing mechanism. Dulaney realized he’d been applying fertilizer far too late and missing opportunity. Rather than starving tillers, Dulaney began putting on fertilizer two to four weeks earlier, removing guesswork from the management process and averaging 20 bu. per acre better.
In the Delta, a good wheat yield in 2012 was 70 bu. per acre. Now, that’s the minimum expectation, and yields are continuing to build. Dulaney credits the higher yields to better genetics and management decisions. In 2014, he had five farmer clients harvest wheat yields of more than 100 bu. per acre across entire fields.
In 2011, Dulaney Seed treated 30% of its wheat seed. Today, that number has jumped to 90%, which corresponds with yield jumps. Dulaney says seed treatments offer an additional 10 bu. per acre. He recommends a minimum of two fungicide treatments.
“In this farming day, you can’t save yourself into profit. You’ve got to pay for the seed treatment because the yield effects are real,” Dulaney says. “Lower commodity prices cause farmers to make cuts, but chopping your later yields is not the way to go. I don’t believe you want to cut anything that will take yield away from the crop.”
Treating wheat as an afterthought ultimately hurts an operation’s overall production, Dulaney warns. “If you manage wheat correctly, it’s not simpler to grow than other crops, but it doesn’t require the labor. Wheat goes back to agronomy 101 and proper management. Sometimes a grower can forget about the basics.”