Angela Knuth’s journey to improved soil health began back in 2005 when she and her husband Kerry made the move to no-till on their Mead, Neb. farm. As third-generation farmers hoping to pass on what they’ve built to the fourth generation, Angela and Kerry are motivated by a desire to leave the land in the very best possible condition for their two sons.
“It is a goal for us to leave the boys with better soils than what we had, and it does take time,” Angela says. “We need to give them something that’s going to make them a living.”
With the switch to no-till, the Knuths found they saved money on tillage equipment and fuel. According to Angela, “We have been pleased to see no decrease in yield. We’re hoping to see that continued decrease in our cost of production and improvement in the soil tilth and microbe activity.”
That goal of improved soil biology is one of the things that led the Knuths to Soil Health Partnership and implementing an on-farm research trial.
“If you get your biology right in your soil, it’s going to pay you back three-fold,” said Angela. “It’s just a matter of, why not?”
As part of their SHP trial, they took steps to pinpoint which cover crops and seed mixes work for their farm in an effort to add greater diversity to their crop rotation, rather than going from just corn to beans and back again. Angela knows that once they can definitively answer their questions about cover crops, the crop diversification piece will be much less work, stress, and risk.
“We’re starting to see that, yeah, this is do-able,” Angela says. “With the diversity, there’s a little more confidence that the future is going to be there for [our sons].”
Wheat can be effectively utilized as a part of a diversified rotation or as a cover crop. Roughly 75% of U.S. wheat acres are grown in arid regions or areas with short growing seasons, and wheat has proven to be adaptable to minimum till or no-till conditions. Wheat responds well to in-season crop input applications, especially fertilizer, which reduces runoff, maximizes uptake and allows better efficiency of inputs and management of costs.
Benefits and considerations
Soil Health Benefits
Adding wheat to a corn and soybean rotation adds diversity, improves soil structure, and provides good residue cover, which reduces soil erosion. Wheat has a fibrous root structure and, because it is a grass, its roots go deep into the soil profile, helping to develop soil structure and improve water infiltration. Arid climates increase this benefit. Living roots from species like winter wheat also provide soil stability in the fall, winter and spring.
Different growing season than other cash crops
Changes window to plant cover crops after harvest
In certain areas, three crops in two years
Assess whether you have the time, labor and equipment to harvest wheat in the summer.
The input costs are often not as high for wheat as they are for other cash crops, but the cash flow or timing of expenditures is different and needs to be considered.
Adding wheat to your rotation will require the use of herbicides with different modes of action. Track the herbicides you are using and ensure they will be effective against the weed species present in your fields.
Wheat has to be managed properly for disease and multiple applications of fungicide are common.
Access to local markets to sell wheat.
Adding a new cash crop to your rotation will bring about new pests that might not typically be seen in other crops. Work with your agronomist to make sure you have an effective plan if you decide to incorporate wheat into your rotation as a cash crop.
Spring wheat and winter wheat can help improve soil health
Winter wheat serves as a great rotation crop and cover crop to keep nutrients in the field and may improve soil health by increasing soil organic matter. Winter wheat can be added to a standard corn-soybean rotation, will add diversity, and allows a producer to have a window of time to plant cover crops after wheat harvest. Winter wheat can also be used as a cover crop after corn or soybean harvest.
Spring wheat is a good rotation crop, allowing farmers to break up disease cycles and control weeds by rotating chemistries.
Wheat as a cover crop
Wheat can be an attractive cover crop option because seed is sometimes more readily available than other cover crops and can be more cost-effective when compared to others.
Soil Health Benefits
Builds soil organic matter
Continuous living root
Helps with water infiltration
Can drill or broadcast it
As a cover crop, wheat can be managed similarly to cereal rye. However, wheat is easier to manage and does not grow as tall as cereal rye in the spring, making it easier to plant into. It also grows slower, allowing for a longer window to terminate.
Know your weather. Evaluate normal planting and frost times. Consider how your cover crop selection works into the rotation. If planting wheat as a cover crop after corn or soybeans, make sure to consider how much time you have to plant. The earlier the wheat is established, the greater the fall growth, but wheat can be planted into later fall and will come up in the spring.
Plan for proper termination timing. Allowing the wheat to get too tall can cause nitrogen tie-up issues if planting corn into the wheat cover crop. To avoid nitrogen tie-up issues when planting corn into wheat, make sure to supply adequate nitrogen at planting time.
Ensure proper set up of no-till equipment. When planting into wheat, it can be difficult if your planter row is directly in alignment with the wheat row. This could cause planting depth issues.
Seeding rates will also vary depending on how early or late the cover crop is planted.
You can find a print version of this informational resource by clicking the button below.
SHP’s Wheat Week – held September 8-10 – consisted of three consecutive days of virtual events exploring wheat’s role in soil health.
Day 1: The Wheat Industry’s Perspective on Soil Health
In this panel discussion, SHP Senior Director John Mesko spoke with representatives from across the wheat industry about why and how their organizations are investing in soil health initiatives.
Jay Watson of General Mills shared the food company’s goals for sustainability and how they are aligning with farmers to improve soil health through education, coaching, creating community and working to determine sustainability measurements.
Keira Franz of the National Wheat Foundation (NWF) explained how wheat profitability is tied to areas where water is a constrained resource and how this creates a need for growers to utilize natural resources in an efficient manner. The NWF involvement in creating wheat specific trials with SHP stemmed from their National Wheat Action Plan
Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat, discussed wheat’s benefit to soil through wheat straw, yield gains in row crops and weed control. He also touched on their involvement in the Rainfed Agriculture Innovation Network (RAIN).
And Charlie Vogel, Executive Director at the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association, talked about Minnesota’s unique wheat growing environment and how that brings challenges and opportunity for growers.
Day two of Wheat Week focused on Kansas growers. Knopf Farms showed how their SHP wheat trial will focus on building soil health qualities, like biological activity and nutrient cycling, to “jump start” the ground (which they just recently began farming) and change its productivity and sustainability. They also took attendees to a field where they incorporated a multi-species cover crop mix this year and are utilizing grazing by partnering with his neighbor’s cattle herd.
Kansas SHP farmer, Mike Jordan, explained his interest in cover crops and his historically limited success with them. He’s working to figure out if and how cover crops work over a five year period in semi-arid conditions.
Central Kansas District Crop Production Agent, Jay Wisbey, talked to growers on the challenges of the 2020 wheat growing season along with what they should consider for the 2021 season.
SHP Kansas Field Manager Keith Byerly then demonstrated an aggregate stability test, along with a soil biological test that growers can do on their own farm.
The last day of Wheat Week focused on Minnesota. SHP farmer Glen Hjelle provided an overview of his wheat trial and took attendees on a tour of the equipment he utilizes and how it has changed to meet his soil health goals.
Missy Geiszler, Vice President of Research at Minnesota Wheat, shared current trends for wheat growing conditions along with challenges growers face in that region.
Trinity Creek Ranch took attendees inside how they partner their soil health goals from their grain operation with their livestock. They gave background on their wheat trial, along with their journey to interseeding. Attendees got to go behind-the-scenes in a sunflower field to get an honest look at the progress they are making in adding diversity and keeping the ground covered with a flowering plant throughout the entire year. And, finally, Trinity Creek took the group on a tour of their machinery building to see how they custom-built an interseeder to meet their needs.
SHP Field Manager Anna Teeter compared the aggregate stability between a long term no-till field and Trinity Creek Ranch’s SHP field trial site, which they recently acquired and where they are working to improve its soil health.
The week finished off with an SHP growers’ panel, where farmers answered questions from attendees.
The Soil Health Partnership is dedicating three days to wheat’s role in soil health during Wheat Week September 8-10, 2020. Each day will consist of a virtual field day that begins at 9:00 am Central Time.
“We have partnered with several organizations, along with farmers in Minnesota and Kansas, to spotlight the unique benefits of wheat,“ said Anna Teeter, SHP Minnesota Field Manager. “Diversifying crop rotations with a small grain like wheat can provide opportunities to expand conservation practices.”
The first day will focus on why and how wheat industry groups are investing in soil health and striving for sustainability. Day two will feature SHP partner farmers in Kansas, Justin Knopf and Mike Jordan. Day three includes SHP partner farmers in Minnesota, Glenn Hjelle and Trinity Creek Ranch.
This provides the opportunity to hear from growers who have experienced challenges in their operations and are incorporating effective soil health practices to mitigate them, as well as how growers persevere with conservation practices in diverse growing conditions.
“Holding this virtually allows us to have impactful conversations with growers looking for guidance on soil health practices well beyond our area,” said Keith Byerly, SHP Kansas & Nebraska Field Manager. “When it comes to soil health, we find that while the practice may be different, the principle is still the same. So, no matter the region you farm, there are beneficial takeaways.”
About the Soil Health Partnership The Soil Health Partnership is a farmer-led initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health practices for economic and environmental benefit. A program of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the partnership extends to more than 200 working farms in 16 states. While building a peer-to-peer network, SHP collects on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on the soil, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line. For more information, visit https://soilhealthpartnership.org.
Media Contact: Stacie McCracken, SHP Communications Lead,
Type of Operation: Mike, with his brother Jeff, farms 3,100 acres. Most of the cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation.
View on Soil Health: Conservation Compliance provisions require Mike, who grow crops on highly erodible land (HEL), to use conservation practices to be eligible for federal programs such as disaster assistance, conservation programs, or crop insurance premium subsidies. Although he is not required to do so, he’s added cover crops to his HEL land to ensure he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion.
Reason for Joining Soil Health Partnership: He began working with the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to experiment with cover crops.
Trials Partnered with SHP on: Mike broadcasts wheat cover crop seed at approximately 60 pounds per acre with a fall fertilizer application (immediately after harvest) and incorporates both with a vertical tillage tool. Wheat is not harvested, so he terminates the wheat cover crop in the spring when it is approximately 12-14″ tall by burning it down with an herbicide application. Because there is no spring tillage, he plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter.
Mike has about 1/3 of his acres in no-till and 1/3 in minimal tillage. He also expanded the acres he plants cover crops beyond his SHP research field.
Advantages Experienced Using New Soil Health Practices: The biggest benefit of the wheat cover crop, in Mike’s experience, is that he uses fewer herbicides during the growing season. He estimates the value of this weed control benefit to be worth at least $10/acre. Also, although he is not required to add cover crops to his HEL, doing so ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion–and significant increases in soil organic matter on Mike’s research field between 2016 and 2018 suggest that Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops.
Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL in order to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost, other than the seed itself, to seed or terminate the cover crop. Putting a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase the use of cover crops.
Justin Knopf believes the better the soil is functioning, the better the relationship between the plants and the soil biology, resulting in healthier crops. He is invested in building better soil on his farm in Gypsum, Kansas where he grows wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa and triticale with his dad and brother.
Justin needs the soil to be functioning well to effectively capture rain in heavy rainfall events, to prevent erosion, and also to store water to make it available when plants need it.
He is conducting an enhanced practice trial on their SHP plot over five that will consist of adding a cover crop to any open window between grain crops compared to the same system with no cover crops.
This research will allow Justin to compare how extending the growing season with cover crops, and how maintaining living roots in their soils for a longer period each year affects their unique crop rotation.
Justin has already seen enhanced soil biology with the presence of living roots throughout the year along with increased diversity and more opportunity to capture carbon and put it into the soil.