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Published October 01, 2012, 10:39 AM

Tough call on winter wheat

The pros and cons of planting it this fall

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Dan Works has been planting winter wheat in dry soil this fall. It’s not the first year the veteran Loma, Mont., farmer has done it.

“You’re always a nervous wreck when you’re doing it. You wonder if you’re pouring money down a rat hole,” he says. “But you do what you have to do. It usually seems to work out.”

Many farmers across the Upper Midwest face a tough decision about winter wheat this fall. On one hand, the crop’s price is strong. On the other, planting winter wheat in dry soil — which carries a risk of the crop not germinating — isn’t for the faint of heart.

People familiar with winter wheat in the region have different takes on how things will shake out. Farmers in South Dakota and Montana collectively will plant roughly as much winter wheat, or even a little more, than a year ago. Farmers in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota collectively will plant less, possibly a lot less, than a year ago.

Why the difference among states?

Winter wheat is an established part of crop rotations in South Dakota and Montana. Farmers in the two states are accustomed to planting it in dry conditions.

The crop isn’t as common in North Dakota and Minnesota. Given the dry fall, many farmers in the two states prefer to go with other crop options with which they’re more familiar.

Less in ND, Minn.

“It’s dry, and we’re seeing less (winter wheat) planted this year,” says Hugh Hunt, a Hallock, Minn., winter wheat seed dealer who grows the crop, too. His sales territory includes northwest Minnesota and North Dakota.

Minnesota farmers planted 60,000 acres of winter wheat a year ago. Their counterparts in North Dakota planted 750,000 acres, an unusually large amount. Much of North Dakota’s winter wheat was planted on fields too wet to plant in the spring of 2011.

Blake Vander Vorst, senior agronomist with Ducks Unlimited, also expects to see fewer winter wheat acres in North Dakota.

His organization promotes winter wheat, including funding research into it. Fall seeding causes fewer disturbances for wildlife and improves nesting success.

More in SD, Montana?

“I don’t think there will be a lot of variance (in Montana winter wheat acres),” Works says. Farmers in his state planted 2.2 million acres of the crop last fall.

For many Montana farmers, the only viable planting choice is spring wheat or winter wheat and there’s little reason to prefer spring wheat in the upcoming growing season, Works says.

South Dakota farmers planted 1.35 million acres of winter wheat last fall. “I think we’ll maintain what we had,” says Randy Englund, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission. “We may even see a slight increase.” Some South Dakota farmers, attracted to high corn prices, cut back on winter wheat to grow more corn last year, Englund says.

This year, some of those farmers may switch back to their traditional crop rotations that include winter wheat, he says.

Attractive winter wheat prices also are a factor, Englund and others say.

Normally, winter wheat fetches substantially less per bushel than spring wheat, which typically has a higher protein content than winter wheat. But that price difference has narrowed sharply this fall, in part because protein levels of both 2012 winter wheat and spring wheat are unusually high.

Tight supplies of U.S. corn have caused more wheat to be fed to livestock, which also impacts winter wheat prices.

This fall, spring wheat fetches about 50 cents per bushel more than winter wheat at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. A year ago, spring wheat fetched about $1.70 per bushel more at those elevators.

Winter wheat typically yields more per acre than spring wheat, and farmers who grow winter wheat count on its higher yield to offset its lower price. This fall, with the price disparity smaller, winter wheat’s traditionally higher yields become even more attractive.

Works says federal crop insurance also is in play. The price at which winter wheat can be insured has been set, while the price at which spring wheat can be insured has not.

“We already know what our winter wheat insurance coverage is going to be. We won’t know our coverage for spring wheat until next March,” he says.

If spring wheat prices fall sharply by March, the price at which the crop can be insured would drop, too, which encourages some Montana farmers to plant winter wheat this fall, Works says.

‘Ridiculous’ moisture

Typically, winter wheat begins growing after it’s planted in the fall, becomes established and then goes into dormancy when cold weather arrives. It resumes growing in the spring with the return of warmer weather and is harvested in the summer, before other crops.

But this isn’t a typical fall in the Upper Midwest.

“We’re sitting with pretty dry conditions,” Englund says. “This moisture situation is ridiculous.”

None of the winter wheat Works has planted will germinate until and unless it rains, he says.

“You never know for sure what’s going to happen when you put seed in the ground,” he says.

Vander Vorst, the Ducks Unlimited winter wheat specialist, says winter wheat can be planted in North Dakota through the first week of October.

He and other winter wheat advocates note that growing the crop helps spread farmers’ workload. Planting more winter wheat in the fall means fewer acres of other crops to plant the following spring.