Double crop wheat and soybeans

MT. VERNON, Ill. — For farmers in southern Illinois, double-crop wheat and soybeans may be the best route to prosperity.

At least that’s what the numbers show.

“It’s the most profitable alternative,” University of Illinois ag economist Gary Schnitkey told growers at a conference here. He and his colleagues have crunched the numbers and are convinced that double-crop will provide the best returns in 2019, with full-season beans next and corn the least.

“The combination of wheat and double-crop soybeans lowers costs, so we come up with a higher return,” Schnitkey said.

Like virtually everything else in agriculture, however, such an assessment is dependent on a number of factors, including weather.

One factor pointing to double-crop favorability is the sharp yield trend in soybeans across the region.

“Soybean yields have been off the map these past several years,” Schnitkey said. “In Illinois, we’ve been above trend since 2012. In southern Illinois, we’re more above trend than in central and northern Illinois. Whatever you’ve done, you’re doing it right. Hopefully we can keep doing that in the future.”

Conversely, wheat yields sagged a bit in 2018. That may be attributed to weather conditions at a critical growing stage.

Despite the relative success of including wheat in a rotation, farmers in the state have not been planting more in recent years. Acreage has fallen from more than 2 million 30 years ago to about 500,000 to 600,000 the past several years. Most is in southern Illinois, and virtually all is part of a double-crop system with soybeans.

“In southern Illinois, the most profitable farms do have wheat,” Schnitkey said. “Most of the wheat on those farms is in pretty modest amounts — 9 to 10 percent.”

Crop mixes change from northern to southern Illinois. In the northern part of the state there are more corn than soybean acres. It is about 50-50 in the central region, and soybean acres outnumber corn acres in southern Illinois.

Since 2016, on average, soybeans have been more profitable than corn. Wheat prices have been higher, relative to soybeans and corn, in recent years.

Schnitkey’s calculations project soybean yields of 41 bushels per acre at a price of $8.50. Last year’s price included $1.65 per bushel for the Market Facilitation Program. He is not budgeting any government payments for 2019.

“If you’re thinking about the decision of double-crop soybeans and wheat, even at $8.50, you have to get 22 bushels an acre to make it a break-even proposition,” he said. “I would say most of you would expect to get that.”

The profit margin among the three crops has been a moving target, with costs affecting decisions. Schnitkey sees an increase in costs for all three crops over 2018, though seed prices are not expected to increase significantly.

Inputs, however, are expected to climb in 2019.

“We’re probably going to see higher costs for all crops, corn in particular,” he said. “Wheat fertilization programs are going to be more expensive in 2019 than they were in 2018. Since 2014 we’ve had cost decreases across Illinois. If you break it down, most of it is fertilizer. Actually, seed costs have come down some. We see an increase in pesticide costs in Illinois. Fertilizer costs are going up, with nitrogen the most.”

Regardless of their planting decisions, farmers may face thin margins again this year.

“Something could change; it’s agriculture,” Schnitkey said. “All the bars are lower.”

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