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Is Winter Small Grain Production for You?

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Posted Jul. 31, 2008

With winter small grain (wheat, rye, triticale) prices near or above all-time highs, producers need to consider adding these crops to their enterprise. Before they try to enter this market, they must be sure they can produce the crop and get it to a profitable market.

To grow a successful winter small grain crop, the most basic question is "What am I going to do with the crop?" For most of us, however, the deciding question is "What will make me the most money?" This is not easy to answer due to the wide range of factors that can affect potential profitability.

Before anything else, determine if your location is suitable to grow a small grain crop. Criteria to consider include topography, soil depth, soil type, pH and fertility. Topography needs to be level enough to plant and harvest the crop efficiently. Sloping land is susceptible to erosion and is often cut with gullies when farmed. If sloping land is to be farmed, use a production system such as no-till or reduced till on contours to reduce the erosion potential. Soil depth must be adequate for root penetration and to provide water holding capacity. The soil type affects which species is best adapted to the site. In general, wheat prefers somewhat tighter soils while rye prefers sandier soils. Finally, a soil analysis is critical because it is the only way to determine if the pH levels are acceptable and if phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O) are deficient. If any of these require a significant investment to correct on a marginal location, it could economically disqualify the location.

Once it is clear that we can produce a small grain crop, how do we market it to make the most money? Again, there are several considerations. First, do you have a way to harvest the grain and get it to a market? If you do not already own a combine and trucks to haul the grain, investigate the availability of custom harvesters in your area. If they are not available, then evaluate the economics of purchasing the equipment before proceeding with grain production. The other primary harvest option is to harvest as a forage crop, either by grazing or as a hay crop. If the value of the hay or the gain, either from contract or from owned calves, pencils out to be the most profitable, then do not consider the grain markets.

If the economic decision is made to harvest grain, evaluate the economics of a grain-only crop versus a dual-purpose crop for grain and cattle. Factors to consider are the presence and condition of fences, available drinking water sources, value of gain, who owns the cattle and the need to cease grazing before the first hollow stem. Continuing to graze cattle after the first hollow stem stage will result in about one bushel per acre yield loss per day.

For grain-only production, delay planting until mid to late October. Seeding rates for grain are approximately 60-80 pounds per acre. Weed control is very important and must be implemented early to limit yield loss and quality dockage.

For forage-only production, planting should be in late August or early September to give the opportunity for early season grazing. Seeding rates should be at least 100 pounds per acre to provide the maximum number of plants as early as possible. Controlling ryegrass is not much of an issue as it will provide an extended grazing period.

Dual-purpose production requires managing for early spring grazing. Pulling the cattle off before the first hollow stem stage will limit the number of available grazing days. Annual ryegrass control will also be critical, as the pull-off date will be before ryegrass has an opportunity to contribute to the forage production.

Regardless of the production plan, proper fertility, quality seed and the correct planting environment are critical to producing a crop for grain, grazing or both.