Wheat is unloaded

Wheat is unloaded from a combine at a field near Addieville. 

Nat Williams, The Southern News Services

OKAWVILLE — Though acreage has been stagnant, wheat growers in Illinois are steadily increasing yields.

The crop harvested this year was possibly the best on record, with the average state yield of 74 bushels filling grain bins. Quality was also high in most areas. There was little to complain about in 2017, according to University of Illinois agronomist Emerson Nafziger.

“I talked to people who would normally expect 60-bushel wheat who got 100 this year,” Nafziger said at the Illinois Wheat Forum here. “Lots of people in Illinois this year reported the highest wheat yields they’ve ever had.”

Still, acreage is at an all-time low, holding at about 520,000 acres, the same as in 2016.

“I’m a little bit encouraged now that we may be leveling off. But we’re leveling off at a half-million acres,” Nafziger said. “Throughout most of our lifetimes, we were at 2 million.”

Prices certainly haven’t added incentive to plant more wheat. And, Nafziger pointed out, farmers who abandon acres of a crop rarely return to it.

“This happened with our other crops, too,” he said. “Oats have almost disappeared. At one time we had more oats in Illinois than wheat. Grain sorghum has never has taken off. It hovers around 50,000 to 60,000 acres.”

Meanwhile, yields continue to grow. That may one of the biggest untold stories of the past few years, Nafziger said. Wheat yields in Illinois are actually outpacing those of corn and soybeans.

“It’s a pretty positive message,” Nafziger said. “Before 2006-07, yields were pretty bouncy in this crop. That’s different in corn and soybeans. They’ve been pretty steady upward. This is good progress — 50 bushels to 70 bushels on the trend line between 1995 and 2017. That’s about 0.9 bushels per acre per year, better than corn and soybeans, from a percentage basis.”

The yield success isn’t reflected in planted acreage. Problems in the past with diseases such as fusarium head scab have resulted in quality issues and dockage. And as global wheat production has flourished in recent years, prices have fallen well below $5.

“Wheat has become a pretty minor rounding error when you look at the crops we grow here,” Nafziger said. “The corn acreage we lost from 2015 to 2017 was as much as our total wheat acres.”

The crop still fits well in southern Illinois in a double-crop system with soybeans. In many years, it holds up well economically against a corn-soybean rotation or continuous corn. Conditions were nearly perfect for the crop in Illinois in 2017.

“We did have a very forgiving fall and winter; it never got too cold,” Nafziger said. “Heading started early in southern Illinois, probably as early as we’ve ever seen it. But then we had that stretch of cool, wet, rainy weather late April and early May. We had a lot of concern about all the rainfall. Certainly ahead of normal in southern Illinois. The big story is that was hardly any fusarium head scab.

“Harvest could hardly have been better for the crop. We had almost 50 percent harvested by June 15. That’s really outstanding. Most stands with double crop are pretty good. I’m impressed generally with the soybean crop. If we continue to get some rain we have good potential.”

Nafziger pointed out that a wheat crop has other benefits, including standing in as a virtual cover crop.

Nat Williams writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.

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