What to Consider When Dryland Wheat Fails

Michaela Mattes, Southeast Area Agronomist

During the last few years, the High Plains in Colorado and Kansas experienced severe (D2) to exceptional (D4) drought conditions at different times of the year. The category of exceptional drought (D4) is the most extreme drought category on the US drought monitor website (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap.aspx). What category an area falls into changes weekly depending on the amount of precipitation during the previous week or the lack thereof. However, the High Plains have experienced less than average precipitation per year during the last few years compared to a couple decades ago. The map mentioned earlier also shows that the drought has short- and long-term impact on agriculture, grassland, hydrology, and the ecology of the area. Producers are very aware that drought has caused a lot of difficulties growing crops for profit. Because of the continued drought conditions in Colorado, and other states, it makes sense to consider what to do with dryland wheat fields that very likely will not produce a profit.

Let’s consider the following scenario: The producer inspects his or her wheat field and decides that the stand is poor. He or she will ask themselves: Should I plow it under, plant something else, leave it fallow, wait and see, or abandon the field? Do I file a claim against the crop insurance? Should I plant another crop as ground cover or cash crop? How will the insurance claim and replanting the field impact future claims?

Crop insurance is a complicated topic. The basic facts are that a producer can claim crop insurance early if the wheat is destroyed before June 1st. Producers should talk to their local adjuster about steps on filing their claim. Destroying the wheat early enough can give the producer time to plant a spring crop. The spring crop would be considered a cover crop by the insurance company. The producer could plant milo, barley, oats, or corn as a spring or cover crop. Though, when deciding to plant a cover crop, the producer will change the rotation, if he or she has a wheat/fallow rotation. A cover crop may or may not be insurable, depending on the producer’s specific details. As stated earlier, crop insurance is a complex subject matter. There are a lot of details that can change the insurability of the spring or cover crop. Also, planting a spring or cover crop can change how much the producer might be paid for his or her failed wheat crop. Details are important! The best advice I can give to any producer is to talk to his or her local crop insurance person about their specific case. The producer can also explore disaster program payments. Again, just like in the case of insurance claims, details matter.

The second thing to consider after the producer decides that his or her wheat crop has failed is to keep the soil in your field from blowing away. A good reason to keep soil from blowing away is that it takes several hundred years to create one inch of soil. Soil is carried away during strong winds unless it is held in place either by plants, crop residue, or a windbreak. This last winter and early spring I have noticed more wind than is usual for this area. Dry soil can travel hundreds of miles when carried by the wind. One noteworthy experience I lived through, was finding sand from the Saharan Desert which travelled north across the Mediterranean Ocean all the way to Vienna, Austria. A poor stand of wheat means very few or no crop residue to break the wind. What one sees is a lot of bare ground. Therefore, growing a cash or cover crop will keep the soil in place during blowing wind.