In 2012, South Dakota farmers planted the lowest number of spring wheat acres since 1885. When one considers the demand for corn by the ethanol industry, positively impacting the price of corn, and the dramatic improvements in corn genetics and subsequent yield improvements, it's not surprising that corn is surpassing wheat in planted acres.
Wheat is still an important crop however, not only for the flour and the many products generated from it, but for the inherent benefits it provides. Wheat and other small grains is the ultimate high residue crop, offering significant benefits to any crop rotation, particularly land under no-till management.
Although farmers often curse the residue generated by a bountiful wheat crop from the previous year when planting a spring crop, a mat of residue is considered one of the keys to successful no-till farming. The mat of residue that a good wheat crop produces may be most valuable in the heat of the summer, when it helps to shade the soil, keeping it cooler than bare ground, and reducing evaporation. Wheat is better at generating this mat of residue than many other crops.
Anyone who has heard Dwayne Beck talk in the past several years has certainly heard about the amazing difference in wheat yields in two very similar crop rotations at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm. The high residue rotation consists of two years of high residue crops, corn and wheat, with the other year being field peas. The low residue rotation consists of two high residue crops, corn and wheat, and two low residue crops, soybeans and field peas, both broadleaves. The high residue rotation produces better wheat yields than the low residue rotation, but the big difference shows up in dry years, like 2002 and 2006, where the high residue rotation produced right at 60 Bu/A, and the low residue rotation less than 30 Bu/A. The amazing thing is that the previous two crops were the same, corn and then field peas.
Kansas State University research estimates that residue left on the field vs. removing it can save as much as 2 of water. Under the right conditions, this 2 could produce an additional 34 Bu/A of corn and 12 Bu/A of wheat. Research also indicates that 100 lbs of dry soil containing 4-5% organic matter can hold 165-195 lbs of water, whereas 100 lbs of dry soil containing 1.5-2% organic matter can only hold 35-45 lbs of water. Once again, wheat and other small grains are king when it comes to generating residue and organic matter.
A presenter recently said farmers should raise field peas because the best way to raise a good corn crop is to raise a good wheat crop to plant into. That speaks well for both field peas and wheat in a crop rotation. The wisdom of planting corn into wheat residue certainly showed in the summer of 2012.
Particularly winter wheat has also shown to be highly beneficial to at least two populations of wildlife; ducks and pheasants. Because they are seeded in the fall, winter wheat fields remain relatively undisturbed throughout the nesting season the following year.
Consider maintaining or including wheat in your crop rotation; it can pay.