Wheat grows in a field in Franklin County, Ill

Wheat grows in a field in Franklin County, Ill. The quality of winter wheat in the Midwest may vary greatly depending on how early farmers got it planted last fall.

It may be a tale of two wheat crops this year.

Winter wheat planting was affected by the unfriendly weather conditions in 2019 that delayed planting of corn and soybeans, which in turn pushed back harvest. Wheat is the victim on some of the acres.

Nate Prater, an agronomist with Golden Harvest, said the best fields now appear to be ones where wheat was sown on idle ground.

“The only good wheat fields are the ones planted in prevent plant acres,” Prater said. “And that’s because they got it in in a timely manner. There are some wheat fields around here that look phenomenal.

“Down the road, where guys planted some behind beans, it was probably late October, and it was wet when they planted it. The old rule of thumb is ‘plant in the dust and your bins will bust.’ We didn’t do that.”

Prater can almost tell whether wheat was planted on prevent plant acres by simply eyeballing the crop.

“The wheat that looks really good was planted in the prevent plant acres from last year,” he said. “It was planted earlier. Guys actually started planting some of the wheat before they did any harvesting because they had time.”

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency reported more than 19 million prevent plant acres in 2019, a 900% increase from the roughly 1.9 million acres reported in 2018. That left a lot of open fields available for early wheat planting in the fall.

Prater said much of the wheat that was planted late following soybeans or corn may be a disappointment. The main reason is that the stubble was unable to provide much nutrition.

“That residue didn’t have a chance to break down at all,” he said. “All the microbes are trying to break down that residue because it didn’t have a chance to break down last fall. So there’s not a lot of what I call free nitrogen for that wheat to utilize. If guys didn’t get a chance to get that wheat fertilized in the fall, it’s going to suffer.”

The USDA reported a significant reduction in wheat acreage in Illinois, from 650,000 acres in the 2019 crop year to only 570,000 acres in 2020. Wheat acreage has declined in Illinois over the past 30 years, from a high of more than 1.5 million acres. Missouri’s wheat acreage figure fell by roughly the same margin, 9%, to 480,000 acres compared to the 550,000 acres planted in 2018 for the 2019 crop.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that total U.S. wheat acreage — both winter and spring wheat — hit the lowest point since records were first kept in 1919. The total acreage was 30.8 million acres, down from about 31.2 million acres the previous year.

Mark Schleusener, a statistician with NASS, said the acreage reduction in winter wheat in the Midwest can almost certainly be attributed to the late soybean and corn crops last year.

“Planting was late in 2019, then harvest was late in 2019. It was probably difficult for the wheat producers to get their planting done,” Schleusener said. “It’s the harvest of 2019 delayed, then planting for 2020 is also delayed.”

Jacqueline O’Daniel, who farms near Fairfield, Illinios, in Wayne County, was among those who were able to get wheat planted early. She likes what she sees so far on the early planted ground.

“We had about a 15-minute window,” O’Daniel said. “We planted some early beans, very early. They came off pretty early, and I sprayed it with Roundup, then planted and fertilized it.”

She drilled her wheat about a week into October, so that it would emerge after the fly-free date, when Hessian flies are able to lay their eggs, opening the crop up to damage from hungry maggots.

She applied 28% liquid nitrogen using stream bars.

“That’s an old-school thing, something I like to do,”

O’Daniel said. “We do a split application, with the first half on Jan. 22 or 23. We had a 48-hour freeze, and we didn’t make a track.”

O’Daniel said some of her wheat isn’t doing well, but she attributed that more to the ground on which it was planted rather than the date of planting, though planting date made a difference.

“Half of it looks fabulous,” she said. “The earlier stuff is on pretty good ground. The second and third planting was not as good. The fourth planting is on terrible ground. It doesn’t look good.”

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