November 10, 2023
At Barks Farms in mid-Michigan, 450 acres of would-be winter wheat will sit idle this winter. Consistent rains have kept the operation, like many others in the state, from harvesting soybeans and planting winter wheat, which serves as a cover crop in the winter and a grain crop in midsummer.
It’s been a pattern in several parts of Michigan: a quarter-inch of rain one day, followed by half-inch two days later and another two-tenths the next day — and repeat. Most recently, snow has been thrown into the mix.
Losing a rotation of wheat has complications beyond the grain and straw loss. Farmers also have lost its value as an overwinter cover crop, the benefit of staggering harvest to balance machinery and labor demands, as well as the consequences of planting a substitute crop (likely corn or soybeans) and how that changes drying, storage, hauling and marketing strategies of the farm. For livestock farmers, prevented plant wheat also cuts into the much-needed acreage for manure application.
Into the first week of November, Nick Barks says they are only about half done harvesting soybeans and haven’t started on corn. Barks is the youngest generation to farm with his father, Aaron, and uncle Earl — growing corn, soybeans and wheat on about 5,000 acres in Clinton County. As his own enterprise, Barks also raises 200 acres of forages for about 300 head of cattle.
For the Barkses, who plant between 800 and 1,200 acres of wheat annually, most years the season is done by opening day of deer season, Nov. 15. “Last year it was dry; every acre was harvested, and fall tillage was done by Nov. 13,” Barks recounts. “We’ve got about 60 acres of high-moisture corn harvested, but there’s still 2,000-plus acres standing.”
While there’s still time for a complete — but delayed — harvest, the window for wheat has essentially closed. In a perfect world, wheat should be planted soon after the Hessian fly-free date, typically mid-to-late September for Michigan. For southern lower Michigan, Oct. 25 was the planting deadline for crop insurance, while the deadline was Oct. 17 farther north.
Now into the second week of November, there’s still plenty of unharvested soybean fields, and any aspiration for planting wheat has been, well, doused.
Where the Barkses were able to get soybeans off, wheat seed was spread on several acres. “We hope it’s going to work; it was too wet to drill,” he says.
How bad is it?
The problem is regional, says Dennis Pennington, Michigan State University Extension wheat systems specialist.
“We have areas where 100% of wheat is planted, including the southeast counties of Monroe and Lenawee, where a lot of wheat is grown,” he says. “Wheat also was planted early on the west side of the state in Allegan County, but the central part of Michigan has been behind, as well as areas in the Thumb.”
The first week of November provided a little break in the rain, and growers who didn’t care about crop insurance pushed the planted acres from 69% for the week ending Oct. 29 (compared to 93% last year and an 85% five-year average) to 80% by Nov. 5, (97% in 2022 and a 91% five-year average), according to USDA crop reports.
Winter wheat emerged was at 68% by Nov. 5, whereas it was 89% emerged last year.
“The later wheat is planted, the chances for winterkill increase, reducing stands,” Pennington says. “Tillering in the spring can offset some of that, but not all of it. Bottom line, we’re going to be looking at lower yield potential for acres planted past the end of October.”
Late wheat will benefit from those diligent about aggressively chopping and uniform spreading of soybean residue across the entire width of the combine, he says.
“It’s important because when planting in wet conditions with excess residue, there’s a tendency to hairpin the stems into the bottom of the seed furrow, which can reduce your stand,” Pennington says. “Where the combine drops residue, the wheat stand can end up being highly variable.”
Pennington has seen years where November-planted wheat yielded decent, but the crop becomes much more sensitive to weather conditions. “If farmers plant early, fertility, variety management and seeding rates provide some crop control and impact, but planting later, wheat yields become more dependent on Mother Nature, and that’s not a very good position to be in,” he says.
Farmers were not only battling rain this fall. Drought conditions following planting this year and ample rain during the remainder of the season led to higher grain moisture in some cases. Farmers with dryers put them to use, including Barks, who took off soybeans anywhere from 13% to 20%.
“It’s not always a problem because grain can dry a point an hour if you get sun, wind, warmth and low humidity, but that’s not what we got,” Barks explains, who notes that livestock farmers have more options than cash croppers with planting corn on intended wheat acres.
“They can use those acres for chopping feed, but grain systems are set up for a certain number of acres,” he adds. “Traveling over 800 more acres in the fall will be a struggle. Our bins and systems are set for what we do every year. Next fall is not looking real good, especially if we get another year like this where the crop needs drying.”
He also wonders what the impact will be on markets and local elevators. “What are they going to do when they can’t handle that much more material?” he asks.
Fortunately, he’s not worried about his manure, which is spread and composted, but larger operations may be facing a very strategic situation next summer.
Switching to spring wheat is not likely a good option, Pennington says. “First, you have to find the seed, and then the real issue is finding a market because the genetic makeup is enough different that mills don’t want to take it,” he says. “Some may take it for feed, but growers need to talk to their elevators before they go that route.”
Reports from the Thumb
Dwight Bartle and his wife, Nancy, are facing a similar situation. They farm 1,300 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, sugarbeets and some oats in Sanilac County. “I wasn’t the only one in this area drying,” Dwight says. “Our beans were between 15% and 20.5% moisture. Rain has been coming every few days. It’s all two weeks behind — I cannot remember harvesting soybeans in November.”
He’s abandoned wheat he wanted to plant on the last 110 acres of late-harvested soybeans. However, he did harvest 170 acres soybeans Oct. 12 that he planted to wheat. He also planted 80 acres of wheat following sugarbeets on Oct. 3.
“They don’t look the best with all this rain,” Bartle says, despite being highly invested in water management. “It’s not our goal to plant wheat after sugarbeets, especially because we had some compaction issues. Those 80 acres of sugarbeets planted to wheat were intended to have a cover crop. I got cover crop seed, but with the weather forecast, I’m going to have to leave it in the bag.”
His goal was to have 300 acres of wheat, but he got 250. “We didn’t plant where we wanted to, and it shows.”
Seed suppliers he’s talked to say only about 30% to 40% of wheat in the area got planted.
In the future, he’s considering planting 25% of his acreage to 92- to 94-day corn. “Hybrids have changed; maybe I’ll back off of the 101-day corn,” Bartle says. “But then again, it was an unusual year, so we have to be careful not to make too many drastic changes and somewhat stick to the game plan.”
Barks remains optimistic. “It might be a beautiful season next year,” he says. “The good Lord has not left our bins empty yet.”
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