Diverse Cover Crop Following Wheat Harvest

Adam Kramer, owner and operator of Black Sand Granary out of Prairie du Chien, farms ground just west of Waukon. He has been working for the past few years to improve the fertility and build up the soil health on the farm. As part of that effort, he decided to plant winter wheat at the beginning of October 2017 following soybean harvest. Adding a small grain to a rotation can help to break up pest cycles, improve soil health, spread out work load, and reduce input costs when compared to corn or soybeans. Another reason that Kramer wanted to plant winter wheat was so that he could follow it with a very diverse cover crop mix. His cover crop included turnips, radishes, Austrian winter peas, sunflower, red clover, soybeans, oats, and spring barley.

Kramer planted soft red winter wheat around October 1 at around 110 pounds per acre. Many spring planted small grains were delayed in planting this year due to the wet/cold spring, so it was beneficial to have it planted the previous fall. He applied a heavier fertilizer rate than the crop removal rate to help build up the soil fertility. Kramer did use a growth regulator on the crop to help reduce the potential for lodging due to higher nitrogen application. Other options for decreasing lodging are to search for varieties that have stronger straw or have shorter stems. He did apply a fungicide to help protect against Fusarium head blight, also known as scab, as well as rusts.

The wheat was harvested on July 23 with an average yield of between 95-100 bu/acre. The average test weight was just under 56 lbs/bu. Some of the wheat was contracted to go to ADM in Boscobel, Wisconsin. Some of it was kept for cover crop seed, which proved to be a wise move this year as there was a shortage of cereal rye and other winter hardy cover crop seed available. In addition to the grain, Kramer was able to sell the straw which improved the profitability of the whole endeavor.

Is it profitable to plant small grains? Growing small grains may not be highly lucrative if you focus just on the grain selling price. However, the reduced input costs improve the net returns. If you grow food-grade small grains, you may be able to get a better grain price. And, if you grow food-grade, organic grains, then you will receive an even higher price. There are people growing food-grade small grains in Allamakee County, but there are limited options for buyers. The biggest buyer of food grade oats and other small grains in the area is Grain Millers in St. Ansgar. Studies have found that diversifying rotations can improve corn and soybean yields in the following years, which then improves the profitability of the entire rotation. By following the wheat with an early-seeded, diverse cover crop mix, there is the potential to fix nitrogen, scavenge nitrogen, break up compaction, increase organic matter, and reduce weed pressure.   

If you are interested in planting small grains next year, you may be eligible to receive cost-share through the Allamakee NRCS office. The Allamakee SWCD has a special EQIP rate for small grains (harvested for grain) followed by a diverse cover crop mix. The EQIP sign-up deadline is October 19, 2018. The small grain can be planted in the spring (oats, barley, etc.) or fall (wheat, rye, barley). If you have questions or would like to sign up, please call 563-568-2246 ext. 3 or stop by the NRCS office at 635 9th St. NW in Waukon.