Joshua Becker, who farms in Beaver City, Neb., seeded hard red spring wheat the third weekend in March. This is Becker’s third year planting spring wheat on dryland ground, because it works well into a crop rotation as eco-fallow before a subsequent corn crop the following year.
While yields have been about half of what producers would expect from winter wheat, spring seeding offers flexibility into the crop rotation and boosts corn yields the following year compared to corn-on-corn or soybeans.
With most of the U.S. spring wheat crop planted in the Northern Plains of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, Nebraska farmers typically plant only 15,000 acres. However, with dry conditions across the state and record wheat prices, that acreage is going up, and spring wheat has been on the radar of many producers.
Spring wheat experience
When he first planted spring wheat two years ago, Becker was the only neighbor to do so, and his neighbors thought he was planting oats.
“That first year we planted hard red spring wheat, we didn’t have a lot of seed available. We planted about 200 acres to Westbred WB9719,” he explains. “It was a learning experience. We didn’t put a lot of inputs into it. We didn’t fertilize the wheat.” In spite of less management, it yielded about 30 bushels per acre.
“I cut the wheat all myself, and I harvested at 15% moisture, so there was a dock at harvest,” Becker says. “We hauled it straight to market.” But it was a positive experience, and Becker broke even on the enterprise. Spring wheat was a way to get more eco-fallow wheat stubble before a corn crop was planted the following spring.
“I can tell almost to the row where we planted corn into wheat stubble the following harvest year,” Becker says. “I’ve seen a 30 bushels-per-acre yield drag on subsequent corn crops planted back into soybean stubble or cornstalks, compared to corn planted into wheat stubble, whether that is winter or spring wheat.”
Because spring wheat doesn’t seem to tiller as much as winter wheat and it is shorter and typically less dense of a stand, corn planted into that wheat stubble may not perform quite as well as winter wheat, but it still has a great advantage, Becker says.
Last year, Becker managed his 350 acres of spring wheat carefully. Planted mostly on hills into soybean stubble, his wheat fields received only 80% of normal precipitation.
“We put more seed down, but didn’t treat the seed,” he says. “We didn’t apply fungicide, but we split-applied our nitrogen, except for about one-third of the very last field that was left unfertilized. It was our own test plot, and where we applied nitrogen to the crop, the yield was good at around 50 bushels per acre. But the part left unfertilized made just over 20 bushels per acre.”
He harvested with a MacDon draper header on July 20, about two weeks after winter wheat harvest was completed.
This spring, Becker used his John Deere air drill to plant AgriPro SY McCloud seed in March, hoping for additional rain or snow. The precipitation did not materialize right away as planned.
“We learned last season that you can’t reduce fertilizer rates, even with higher costs on inputs this season,” Becker says.
Testing the benefits of fertilization again, he applied dry fertilizer in furrow when he drilled the wheat and will split-apply nitrogen later in the season, hoping for plentiful spring moisture to help out. “But I turned off the dry fertilizer on a couple of passes while we were drilling, so I can see how big of a difference it makes,” he says.
One 2021 study at the Henry J. Stumpf International Wheat Center near Grant, Neb., looked at water consumption (evapotranspiration), productivity and protein content of hard red spring wheat.
Hybrid Westbred 9590 was planted March 15 last season at a seeding rate of 1.6 million seeds per acre on a 1-acre plot on a Kuma silt loam soil with 0% to 1% slope. Full establishment was delayed until April 23 because of dry conditions.
Nitrogen in the form of dry urea (46-0-0) was broadcast at a rate of 150 pounds per acre on May 3. The spring wheat was irrigated using a Valley center pivot with variable-rate technology and Senninger iWob UP3 sprinklers on 10-foot spacing. Harvest occurred July 21 using a John Deere 9500 combine with a Shelbourne Stripper header.
Rainfall for the Grant location was 10.5 inches — about 2 inches lower compared to the 30-year average at Imperial of 12.6 inches. Rainfall during the soil moisture monitoring period from May 4 to July 16 was 6.95 inches. During this time, the soil water balance declined by 3.86 inches, and 3.25 inches of irrigation water was applied.
Total crop water use was 14.1 inches. This is below reported values of 18 to 21 inches for spring wheat in Montana, 22 inches for Scottsbluff, Neb., and 20 to 21 inches for Idaho. An effective maximum rooting depth of 3 to 3.5 feet was reported. This study shows that most of the water extracted from the May 4 to July 16 sampling dates exhibits the greatest extraction in the top 42 inches, indicating an effective rooting depth of 3.5 feet.
The nonreplicated plot yielded 65 bushels per acre, slightly higher than the expected yield of 58 bushels, with a moisture content of 12.4%. The test weight was 60.9 pounds per bushel, and the protein content was 14.5%, within the range of expected protein from the North Dakota Wheat Commission of 13% to 16%.
Likewise, Becker’s spring wheat last year had significantly higher protein content than his winter wheat, with some spring wheat reaching 15% protein.
“Last year was super dry in the Dakotas, so spring wheat was worth good money,” he says. “Inputs are higher now, but spring wheat should be a good price again, even if it does cost more this year in freight to get the crop to market.”
Overall, profit is only one of Becker’s motivations for adding spring wheat to his crop rotation. He knows that the eco-fallow wheat stubble will conserve moisture after harvest, and offer beneficial soil moisture and other properties that will give a strong boost to dryland corn yields the following year.