Ohio wheat farms finding boost in double-cropping

Kathy Lynn Gray
Circleville grain farmer John Hoffman stands in a field of wheat.

Could wheat be making a comeback in Ohio, the land of corn and soybeans?

Thanks to the growing use of a practice called double-cropping, one local agriculture economist believes the crop is on the rebound. A decade ago, wheat was planted on twice as many Ohio acres as it is today, but it may rally a bit in 2019, says Ben Brown, assistant professor of agricultural risk management at Ohio State University.

Farmers here have grown a type known as soft red winter wheat for decades. Planted in the fall and harvested the next spring, it’s used in crackers, cookies, cakes, cereal and pastries. Brown estimates Ohio wheat acreage has increased by about 10,000 acres in 2019, bringing the state total to about 500,000 acres. That’s nowhere near the 980,000 Ohio acres harvested in 2009 or the nearly 1.5 million acres harvested in 1961, but it’s a positive sign, he says.

One reason for the upturn is that farmers can plant soybeans on the acreage after the wheat has been harvested, giving them a “double crop” for the year on the same land. Not only does that mean a possible profit from two crops rather than one, but diversifying the crop grown on the land can help control pests and disease that can reduce soybean yield.

“Crop rotation is extremely important,” says Laura Lindsey, an assistant professor in horticulture and crop science at Ohio State University. Sandwiching a wheat crop in between soybean plantings can help reduce populations of soybean cyst nematodes, a parasitic roundworm, and can also produce higher crop yields, she says.

Circleville grain farmer John Hoffman plants about 10 percent of his 3,000 acres with wheat each year, planting the rest with corn and soybeans. “Once we harvest the wheat, we immediately plant soybeans, if Mother Nature is willing,” says Hoffman, who’s been farming since 1978. Then by November, he can harvest those soybeans and plant wheat again. The extra work of double-cropping some fields helps Hoffman’s bottom line, he says, especially these days when commodity prices are depressed and grain farmers are working on what Hoffman calls a “razor-thin margin” of profitability. “It also gives me another cash infusion, since it’s harvested at the end of June,” he says. “Just growing it by itself, wheat is not a money maker. But there’s money in it as long as I couple it with double-crop soybeans.”

Hoffman says about 15 to 20 percent of the farmers in Pickaway County where he lives grow wheat. Some double crop while others, particularly livestock farmers, grow it for its byproduct—straw. “Some people like to grow wheat and some don’t,” he says. It can be a temperamental crop and needs to be carefully managed with fertilizers and fungicides to ensure a good yield.

“That comes with a cost, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it will pay for itself,” he says. While the average yield per acre in Ohio is 70 to 75 bushels, Hoffman says his fields yield about 100 bushels an acre because of his extra effort.

Wheat’s always been an important crop in Ohio, says Lindsey, despite its reputation as a riskier crop to grow than corn or soybeans. Disease can be a problem, as well as weather. Getting winter wheat established after planting can be difficult, especially if wet weather persists in the fall and early winter as it did last year, she says. And if it rains too much and farmers can’t get into the fields when harvest time rolls around, wheat can fall over or start to sprout, she says.

“Wheat has to be harvested in a very timely manner,” Lindsey says. “It can be very challenging to manage, and that’s true across the United States.”

Wheat remains an important U.S. crop, ranked third (behind corn and soybeans) in planted acreage, production and gross farm receipts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the country’s share of the global wheat market has been falling for the past 20 years as other countries, including Russia and Canada, have increased their production and more U.S. farmers have opted to grow soybeans. The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that for the 2019/20 season, U.S. wheat plantings will be down about 4 percent to 45.8 million acres.

But Hoffman will continue to grow the crop here in Ohio.

“I think it’s a beautiful crop,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything prettier than a field of wheat just prior to harvest.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.