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Double-crop options widening in the Midwest

Wheat as a double crop

Wheat harvest begins in late June on a double-crop field in southern Illinois.

Double-cropping wheat with soybeans is certainly nothing new. But it’s getting a fresh look.

The practice of sowing winter wheat in the fall, harvesting it mid-summer and following it with soybeans is common in southern portions of the Corn Belt, including southern Illinois. But advances in plant breeding and crop protection are providing farmers in more northerly regions another option for a cash crop.

“It’s a great way to alleviate some risks,” said Abigail Peterson, an agronomist with the Illinois Soybean Association. “It’s a way to diversify your operation, especially in southern Illinois where you have that opportunity because of the extended growing season.”

University of Illinois plant breeder Jessica Rutkoski said despite weather concerns, farmers who grow soybeans in central and northern parts of Illinois have an increasingly good chance of success.

Rutkoski said the main focus of the

U of I’s wheat breeding program has been development of early maturing cultivars that still yield well. The university has years of experience with wheat breeding with the program previously spearheaded by agronomist Fred Kolb.

“We go for yield but also constraining maturity,” she said. “We have really good yield and at the same time really early maturation. The tendency is that there is a correlation. Later varieties tend to yield more, but we’ve been able to break that. Early wheat can also yield well.”

While double-cropping is routine for many producers, those north of the traditional geography face unique challenges.

“For farmers up north who have access to hog manure nearby and can utilize equipment ready during those July months, it is definitely an option,” Peterson said. “That’s true especially this year. We’ve had good rains. That’s one of the hardest things. But it offers soil tilth. It’s good to have something rooted in the ground and those other benefits.”

Innovative management techniques, such as relay cropping, also make double-cropping more feasible in northerly regions. Some farmers plant soybean seeds into growing wheat using a high-profile planting machine.

“That’s a very interesting concept trying to overcome challenges,” Peterson said. “It might nick those beans a little bit, but beans are very resilient. Some farmers have done that.”

Flying bean seeds into standing wheat is also an option during wet periods, though it doesn’t always pencil out.

“People have tried relay cropping, planting soybeans between rows of wheat,” Peterson said. “There was some interest a few years back. It’s technically more difficult but interesting idea.”

The USDA is implementing a policy that would increase crop insurance options that target double-cropping systems. That could potentially entice more farmers to consider growing soybeans after wheat.

“The weather is going to be a variable, but a combination of early maturing wheat plus all the right decisions, combined with crop insurance is going to be helpful,” Rutkoski said. “With that little bit of risk with the weather, that crop insurance is going to be important.”

Peterson agrees.

“I encourage farmers to look into insurance for wheat and double-crop soybeans in northern Illinois now,” she said.

As with corn and soybeans, average wheat yields have increased over the past few decades. While many factors are at play, disease suppression is a big one.

“Scab (fusarium head blight) was always a big problem,” Rutkoski said. “It still is, but we’ve gotten to the point where almost everything has some level of resistance. Also, fungicides have helped, and more farmers are using them. That combination controls a lot of disease. Another thing with early heading and maturing wheat is that we’re escaping a lot of that risk with scab because the plants are heading when it’s cooler.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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Soybeans that were planted around mid-May have grown more slowly than expected this year, although that is beginning to be corrected in areas where at least an inch of rain fell in June.

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