Winter Wheat Doubles In Wisconsin

Monday, March 12th 2007, 5:34 am
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Winter wheat, a crop once almost unheard of in Wisconsin, is taking root in America's Dairyland even as other states are growing less of it.

Wisconsin farmers planted 280,000 acres of winter wheat for the current growing season, double the amount in 2000. The reason: simple economics.

``It's a good cash crop. That's the name of the game,'' said Howard Delsman, who raises it northwest of Manitowoc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said state farmers got $1.85 per bushel for winter wheat grain in 2000, but $2.85 in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. Production has gone up from nearly 8.4 million bushels to more than 17.9 million last year.

Grain from the winter wheat often is used for making pastries, and straw produced from the plant is also sold. Wisconsin growers have two built-in uses within the state's dairy industry _ as bedding for cows and as a feed additive.

``It's easy to grow, and easy to manage,'' said John Gaska, a University of Wisconsin agronomist. ``It's looking pretty good economically.''

Winter wheat can be grown in Wisconsin _ even though its farm fields freeze during the winter _ because the crop goes dormant after initial growth in the fall, Gaska said. The grain comes out of dormancy in early- or mid-April and the crop is harvested in mid-July.

The increase in the size of Wisconsin's winter wheat crop since 2000 took place while the number of acres of winter wheat planted nationwide dropped from 62.5 million acres nationwide to 57.3 million last year, and production dropped from 2.2 billion bushels to 1.8 billion.

``Those reduced yields are reflected in the higher prices,'' Gaska said. ``The prices are set based on the crop grown in the West, where most of the winter wheat is grown in the United States.''

The main reason for the reduction in winter wheat planting and production nationally is a switch toward corn and soybeans, which are treated more favorably under federal farm policies, said Allan Fritz, a professor in Kansas State University's Department of Agronomy. A smaller factor has been drought conditions in areas favorable to the crop, he said.

Ed Montsma, who farms in Fond du Lac County in eastern Wisconsin, said his rotation of the wheat with corn and soybeans improves the quality of his soil.

``It's a lot cheaper (in the cost of labor, fertilizer, herbicide and fuel) to raise winter wheat than to raise corn, and about the same cost as it is for soybeans,'' he said.

Winter wheat straw has been used on dairy farms for bedding animals for a number of years, Delsman said.

``Sand that has sometimes been used as an alternative has been hard on machinery used on big dairy farms, and many are switching back to wheat straw,'' he said.

Some dairy farmers also mix ground-up straw into feed for cows and heifers.

``It adds bulk and dilutes energy, reducing the calories the animals consume,'' said dairy cow nutritionist Steven Woodford of Sheboygan Falls.

Vegetable growers commonly use the straw for mulching and landscapers spread it over newly planted grass, Gaska said.

Wisconsin's generally mild recent winters were not believed to have been a major factor in increasing the size of the winter wheat crop, Gaska said.

Nancy Kavazanjian, who raises winter wheat with her husband in the DeForest area, said she had significant winterkill of her crop two years ago, caused by alternating warming and freezing.

Gaska said he has not heard any reports of winterkill of the current crop, and Montsma said a late February warm spell before several rounds of heavy snowfall has not raised his concern.

``It didn't come out of dormancy,'' he said. ``The snow now is insulating it. I think we're in great shape.''