By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
For the better part of a century Oklahoma agriculture almost could be summed up in one word: wheat. Of course, Oklahoma farmers have been producing other crops since the first ground was broken, but crop diversification and the shift away from mono-culture wheat farming have accelerated in recent years as more growers have pursued opportunities to capitalize on management options and attractive market prices.
Down on the farm
Recent studies of the state’s wheat yields reflect the shift away from exclusively farming the familiar grain.
The 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture Annual Wheat Review shows Oklahoma at a 30-year low for wheat production, both in acres planted and bushels harvested.
Oklahoma wheat farmers planted more than 7.5 million acres of wheat in 1980, with 6.5 million acres harvested for grain, yielding 195 million bushels of wheat.
Those figures have declined steadily throughout the ensuing 30 years. In the 2010-11 growing season, the state had 5.1 million acres planted in wheat, with 3.2 million acres harvested for a yield of 70.4 million bushels.
That represents a 32 percent reduction in acres planted in wheat and a 64 percent reduction in bushel yield from 1980 to 2011.
Higher prices and an easing drought boosted wheat planting for the current season.
National Agricultural Statistics Service reported in January planted acres in Oklahoma were up 8 percent to 5.5 million acres.
However, in north central Oklahoma, planted acres were down to 1.34 million acres, compared to 1.45 million acres last year.
Area is able to diversify
Jeff Bedwell, Garfield County Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Center ag educator, said the decline in wheat production doesn’t represent a decline in agriculture planting but rather an increase in crop diversification.
Bedwell said producers increasingly are turning to crop rotation because of three factors: the need to rotate crops to control unwanted grasses in wheat fields; increased profit margins through rotation, based on market prices; and minimize risk based on current crop insurance products.
“Our ag producers have some flexibility in being able to make decisions based on the market, based on their need for diversification for weed control, and based on which crops will provide the best profitability,” Bedwell said.
He said many producers continue the practice of “double-cropping” winter wheat with summer crops like corn, soybeans, sesame, sunflowers and grain sorghum.
“We usually have adequate moisture to get a summer crop started in this region of Oklahoma, and that gives producers some flexibility in whether or not they double-crop behind wheat,” Bedwell said.
Last summer’s extreme heat and drought conditions weren’t conducive to agriculture of any sort, but the ensuing hay shortage may make alfalfa an attractive crop this fall.
“Alfalfa has become very popular as of late because of the high value of forage crops,” he said.
Bedwell said alfalfa also has gained popularity as a rotation crop because it helps replenish nitrogen in the soil.
One of the dominant factors in the growth of crop rotation is an increased demand to remove infestations of cheat, rye grass and feral rye from growers’ fields.
The problem of dealing with intruding grasses is not new to wheat farmers, but many elevators now require much cleaner wheat.
The answer, for many producers, has been to rotate out of wheat and into crops that will tolerate herbicides that can “clean up” the fields.
“It’s become more and more well-accepted by producers; we can manage those grassy weed issues by rotating into other crops,” Bedwell said.
He said many producers have gone beyond two-year rotations, implementing three- to five- or even six-year crop rotations.
“However a producer rotates crops, it’s not going to be a one-stop fix,” Bedwell said. “Those grassy weeds leave seeds in the soil for multiple years, and it takes multiple years of rotation to get the weed and rye seed bank worn out.”
Side benefits of rotation
Bedwell said many producers who turned to a wheat-canola rotation to control grassy weeds now are finding other advantages.
“Oftentimes, what I find is people like the synergism between the two crops, and they’ll see a bump in yield as wheat follows canola, or vice versa,” Bedwell said.
James Wuerflein has benefitted from that “bump” in yields that comes with crop rotation.
Wuerflein, who farms in Garfield County with his brother Richard, has made the move from mono-culture wheat to a continuous rotation of wheat and summer crops.
“Up until 15 years ago we were predominantly wheat, but in the last 15 to 16 years we started rotating our crops and no-till farming,” Wuerflein said.
He said he and his brother turned to crop rotation because they were having problems with grassy weeds and fungal diseases in their wheat fields.
“Continuously farming wheat was not working so well, and we were seeing more disease problems all the time,” Wuerflein said.
After listening to a presentation about crop rotation in the Panhandle, the Wuerfleins de-cided to try crop diversification in their operation.
“We experimented with crop rotation and no-till farming for the first few years, and it was working really well,” Wuerflein said. By the third year they had implemented a full no-till rotation on all their fields.
Wuerflein said they now farm in a rotation with half their fields in wheat, the other half in corn, soybeans, grain sorghum or milo. The fields planted in wheat are double-cropped with soybeans or grain sorghum.
“By rotating those crops you break the disease cycle,” Wuerflein said. “You hear a lot of people talk about planting canola to clean up their fields. To me, and I raise canola also, it’s not the canola that makes our wheat grow better, it’s breaking that disease cycle. Just getting away from that one crop for a year or two gives another mixture to your soil.”
Wuerflein said there’s no single-crop fix for diseases or weed problems.
“If you farm mono-culture of any crop over a multitude of years, you’re going to run into problems,” he said.
By rotating crops, Wuerflein said he has seen not only cleaner, healthier fields but increases in yield.
“Instead of getting the same crop every year, we’re getting three crops every two years,” he said.
The rotation also helps mitigate risks posed by weather.
“We’re spreading our risk out,” Wuerflein said. “We might have a bad wheat crop and a good milo crop, or vice versa.”
In a state where it is not uncommon for catastrophic weather events to destroy entire crops, spreading out the risk may be the greatest benefit of crop diversification.
“It gives a longer window to plant, and a longer window to harvest,” Wuerflein said. “And, hopefully somewhere in there we get good enough weather for something to grow.”