Amber Waves of Grain
If you’ve driven across Indiana these past days, you’ve probably seen a golden wheat field – just like those that inspired the line in America the Beautiful.
A ready wheat field means it’s the peak of summer. To hard-working farm kids, it means a couple days on a wagon in the blazing sun stacking bales of straw that will be used to bed livestock in the cold winter months.
To many farmers, it means a quick harvest with hopes there is time to replant that same field with a quick growing variety of soybeans.
Feeding the soil
Wheat is an easy crop to grow, and it does well for farmers in areas with poor soil conditions. World-wide, there’s a lot of wheat production so it is difficult to get a price that’s competitive. When land is expensive as it is in our area, the price for wheat doesn’t justify growing it specifically as a cash crop.
We like to grow wheat especially for the soil benefits it provides. We only plant about 200 acres of wheat each year, rotating it through the fields to give the ground a break after a few years of crop production. Much like the biblical advice to let ground rest every seven years, planting wheat helps restore nutrients into the soil even better than letting the ground lay fallow, providing erosion control and keeping weeds to a minimum better than letting the field go for a season.
We’d like to grow more wheat, but since it’s not very profitable, we look at it mainly for soil improvement. We also plant about 700 acres of cover crops for winter protection of other land. Cereal Rye is good for that use. In the spring, we kill it with herbicide and plant right into it as a no-till crop. As the rye decomposes, it creates a mulch around the beans and does a good job of holding in moisture. Unless of course, it’s a wet, cold Indiana spring where we don’t need to hold on to that much moisture. In dryer climates, Cereal Rye is a popular choice.
Other crop options
The general practice after wheat harvest has been to plant soybeans, since they have a short enough growing season, however some Indiana farmers are looking at barely as another alternative. Sunflowers are also an option since they have an even shorter growing season than soybeans, but without a processor close by, farmers are faced with extra transportation costs.
Don’t look for wheat to go away from Indiana farm fields any time soon. These amber waves of grain will keep their place in responsible farming.