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Crop Rotation and Alternatives to Wheat

Posted Nov. 2, 2009

In the Noble Research Institute service area within 100 miles of Ardmore, Okla., a lot of wheat is grown. Is this simply because wheat is what we grew last year, and the year before and the year before that? Maybe we grow wheat because we raise cattle and need winter grazing for them. However, improvements in other crops have provided some options that we may need to examine.

Canola has received increased attention lately. It would seem to be an ideal crop to use in a rotation scenario with wheat. It has the same growing season as wheat, and we can use the same equipment for planting and harvesting. Canola is a broadleaf, so it provides the opportunity to clean up some grassy weeds that are difficult to control in a continuous wheat production system. Canola also has a deep taproot to loosen and mellow the soil. In the past, problems with canola included winterkill and a lack of marketing points/options. Varieties have now been bred with improved winterhardiness. In addition, more elevators will receive canola than in the past.

Sesame is a relatively new and unknown crop in the southern Great Plains. Like canola, it can be planted and harvested with the same equipment that we use for wheat. Plant breeding has also provided some better adapted varieties. Sesame is a summer annual crop that seems to tolerate hot, dry weather very well. As sesame acreages grow, the number of elevators handling it will also increase. Cotton was once a high input crop requiring multiple pesticide sprays to control insects and weeds. Now, with boll weevil eradication, Bollgard®, Roundup Ready® and LibertyLink®, cotton could once again be a desirable crop.

Many farmers are interested in growing corn or soybeans. I would not typically recommend these crops west of I-35 without irrigation. If irrigation is available, these may be options. Another option similar to soybeans is dry or edible beans such as black-eyed peas, cow peas or snap beans.

Milo or grain sorghum is a crop that is often overlooked. If value is given to the grain production and the forage that can be baled after grain harvest, it can be a profitable crop. It may even provide income from lease hunting for dove after harvesting the grain crop.

Sunflowers share many of the same advantages as other rotation crops. They are a broadleaf crop, which provides different herbicide options than wheat alone. They also have a deep taproot and are an oil seed, which may be used for feed or biofuel. The potential for lease income from bird hunters also exists with a sunflower crop.

Benefits of rotational cropping include breaking weed, disease and insect pest cycles; diversification to spread risk; different root systems to loosen compaction; possible nitrogen benefit from including a legume; and increased yields from the "rotation effect," even if the rotation does not include legumes. Including a summer annual that is not double-cropped also provides time between wheat harvest one year and planting the following spring, thus building up or banking soil moisture. Take some time to evaluate your operation and determine if a crop rotation would benefit you.

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