I’ve fielded a lot of calls since our recent freeze, and they all have the same gist: “What do I do now?” There’s a lot of wheat out there looking less than amazing, and in a year such as this one, which has been one of the most difficult in memory, the question indeed is, “What do we do now?”
Your best course of action is, as you might expect, dependent upon your operation, capabilities, goals, and plans. There isn’t a best answer here, or a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
What appears to be true for us all is that we’re dealing with the worst wheat crop since 1996. In many cases, we can say that we’re dealing with a failed wheat crop. Although, there are a few, fortunate spots where the wheat actually looks good. We clearly have a lot to complain about, but I want to use this space and opportunity to talk instead about your options for best playing the crummy hand we’ve been dealt this growing season.
Essentially, you have the choice to cut or leave your wheat. Either option requires that you proceed intelligently and carefully: know what they require and know what outcomes are possible. Selecting the right option for your situation will gain you the most of what is left to be gained from your wheat crop.
Choosing to cut your wheat now opens the door for a few possibilities:
Cut your wheat to use for feed: Cutting your wheat and getting some feed value out of it could be a way to reclaim some of your investment in this year’s crop. If you’re interested in going this route, just be aware that there very well may be excess N out there, so before you bale for feed, be sure to nitrate test your wheat.
Double crop: There’s a lot of interest in this option, but there are many important details to understand and explore before you dive headlong into a second crop. Chief among these details is the investment that double cropping requires and the importance of rain: with planting and harvesting costing around $30 dollars per acre apiece, you can easily invest $100 per acre to double crop, and easily lose that investment if some rain doesn’t fall.
As with baling for feed, the potential excess N out there poses some problems also. You’re likely considering soybeans for your second crop and that excess N may confuse them a touch. Essentially, soybeans can be quite lazy. In normal conditions, they produce their own N, but with excess N available to them from the soil, they will all but shut down their own production. That’s not a problem in the beginning—it becomes a problem come July when the excess N in the soil runs low, and the beans suddenly find themselves deficient. This would happen about the time that they’re filling pods, which, of course, is a terribly bad time to suffer a N deficiency.
If you’re considering double cropping, another important consideration is the chemistry you’ve already put down so that you don’t plant a crop that will react adversely to any residual in your soil. If you’ve put down an SU-type product for example, you would need to plant STS soybeans.
Lastly, if you’re considering double cropping, soybeans aren’t your only option. If you have cattle, you could consider planting a short season crop, like sorghum, for feed.
Chemical fallow: This is sometimes a popular option in western KS. Chemical fallowing requires that you cut your failed crop but instead of double cropping, you simply follow up with herbicides to control weeds in your field and let it be for the remainder of the season. While this might strike some as a wasted opportunity, chemical fallowing actually stockpiles water in your soil for use next season.
If your wheat is showing any signs of hope, you might consider simply leaving it be and getting what you can from it. I think that we’re all in a bit of a daze right now—and ,understandably, prone to negative thinking about our crop’s potential, but there is yet the possibility of some surprises.
Leaving your wheat in the field doesn’t require any instructions, but I might offer one suggestion: write down what fertilizers, chemistry, etc. you’ve put out there already and soil test in the late summer. Depending on how well (or not) your wheat flourishes, you may be left with excess nutrients in the soil at the end of the season and knowing, for example, that your P and K levels are still in the green will save you from putting down stuff you don’t need, which will save you money next season.
Droughts don’t happen overnight, so hopefully you’ve done some contingency planning already. If so, now is the time to act, whether that means cutting or committing to the crop already out there. If you haven’t yet thought about these things, now is the time to do so, and in short order. If you do decide to cut your wheat, do it right. Cut with love. When you’re harvesting fewer bushels, each one is all that more valuable to you. Make sure that your combine is in good working order, and take care to collect every bushel possible. If you decide to leave your wheat, commit to the decision and make the most of it too come harvest. Whatever option you ultimately decide to pursue, acting upon it in a responsible and efficient manner will allow you to squeeze the most profit from this year’s difficult crop.