Corn will always be king in east-central Nebraska, but a few growers have recently decided to diversify their corn-soybean rotations by adding winter wheat to the mix.
So, this fall, Nathan Mueller, Nebraska Extension cropping systems specialist, decided to offer a new support program for winter wheat acres in Dodge and Washington counties as part of the recently launched Winter Wheat Works Initiative.
"As a local cropping systems educator, roughly 40% of my time is spent on statewide issues. Another 40% is local service to Dodge and Washington County," says Mueller. "That's where the Winter Wheat Works Initiative comes in. It's one of the ways to contribute or provide resources locally, because I have experience with winter wheat in South Dakota and Kansas. That's not an area a lot of other agronomists in the area have."
However, when he moved back to his home county in Dodge County three years ago after studying at South Dakota State and Kansas State universities, Mueller realized there were more questions than he could answer about the crop. Questions entailed: What varieties should I plant? What seeding rate should I choose? What nitrogen rate should I use? Should I apply fungicide?
So, about a year ago, Mueller launched the Winter Wheat Works Initiative, and last summer, added a fourth location to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's winter wheat variety testing program — the first one north of the Platte River in eastern Nebraska in 35 years. Most recently, he started working with growers in soil testing and is now offering free scouting services to winter wheat growers in the area.
While winter wheat acres in the area still don't compare to those in western Nebraska, Mueller says growers are showing interest in adding wheat to the rotation.
"Several growers did plant winter wheat for the first time this year. We had three winter wheat growers before, and now we've added four more, so we have seven total winter wheat growers in the area," says Mueller. "It's a pretty small program, but soil sampling and crop scouting is pretty achievable compared to hundreds of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans."
More research needed
Mueller hopes the program will lead to more on-farm research aimed at wheat growers in eastern Nebraska. Recently, he's collected survey data on soil chloride levels — something Nebraska growers don't have a lot of data on. However, Kansas State University data has shown yield increases from 7% to 10% by applying 20 pounds of chloride per acre on fields with low chloride levels. This spring, Mueller hopes to follow up by testing yield responses to top-dress chloride applications.
"When Kansas did their tests for chloride recommendations, most of the yield responses from chloride were in eastern Kansas. I think maybe there are some potential yield responses in eastern Nebraska that we haven't researched," he says. "Whether we could expect to see similar results here in Nebraska is what we need to find out. Initially, we'll be taking soil samples and following Kansas' recommendations."
In addition to the field day in eastern Nebraska, Mueller is adding a winter workshop on Feb. 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Nebraska Extension Office in Fremont. It’s similar to a working group where growers can get together and learn from one another, including those who have been growing winter wheat since the early 2000s. The meeting will also give growers a chance to learn about available UNL resources, and Extension educators a chance to learn about different needs that should be addressed.
Meanwhile, several early-adopters in the area have been growing winter wheat since the early 2000s.
"If you haven't been ice skating your whole life, there's a risk you're going to fall. The same thing goes for raising a crop for the first time," he adds. "Winter wheat is maybe where cover crops were 10 years ago, a few people doing it and a lot of people afraid to try it — and it doesn't fit every operation."