As a general rule, winter wheat is grown as a cash crop, however it can provide the benefits of most other cereal grains as well. It also works as a grazing option and unlike barely or rye, it is unlikely to become a weed and is much easier to kill. Wheat is slower to mature than some other cereal grains and is increasingly grown more than rye as it is cheaper and easier to manage in the spring.
No matter the reason behind growing winter wheat, it adds rotation options for under-seeding legumes for forage or nitrogen and it can also work as weed control for growing potatoes with irrigation in more semiarid regions. Winter wheat has some other benefits as well:
- Nutrient catch crop. All nutrients are recycled when wheat is managed as a cover crop, which gives it a prime role in scavenging nitrogen. It enhances the cycle of N, P, and K. When used as a cover crop instead of a grain crop it does not need fertilizer in the fall or spring.
- Erosion control. In much of the United States, winter wheat is used as an over-wintering cover crop for erosion control.
- Cash and cover crop. Even though winter wheat can be grown as either a cash or cover crop, each are managed differently. In an area like the Cotton Belt, wheat and crimson clover would be a good mix. In another region, cowpeas would be a good choice after the wheat harvest in early July and before planting winter wheat in the fall. In the Corn Belt, you might under-sow red clover or frosted sweet clover to nurse a wheat crop, especially if you want the option of a year of hay before going back to corn. Wheat also can reduce wind erosion in areas such as the Colorado vegetable systems.
- Weed suppressor. Sown in the fall, wheat competes very well against most weeds once it has been established. It also grows quite rapidly in the spring, which allows it to choke out most varieties of weeds.
- Soil builder and organic matter source. Wheat is an excellent source of straw and stubble and its root system will help improve topsoil tilth. It will not produce as much as other crops such as barley or rye but the residue is easier to manage.
- Boosts income and adds soil protection. One of the main advantages to wheat is that it is an ideal fall cover crop that you can later decide to harvest as a cash crop. It is an excellent double crop that leaves a lot of residue to keep the topsoil from washing away. Disease and pests are also rarely a problem.
Wheat prefers soils of medium texture and moderate fertility. It can tolerate poorly drained soils, at least better than barley or oats can, but it is better in well drained fields as flooding can easily drown a wheat stand. A firm seed bed will help reduce winter-kill and tilling should be minimal in semiarid regions to avoid depleting soil moisture.
Wheat is great as a high value weed control. For crops such as potatoes, pairing a winter wheat cover crop with a reduced herbicide program will provide excellent weed control, particularly in irrigated or semiarid regions. In one study, the cover crop was killed and then potatoes were planted with a regular potato planter, which actually rips the wheat out of the potato row. Then, an herbicide mixture was used over the row to control between row weeds. This was proven to be highly effective and also, if the winter wheat was killer early enough, reduced the water management issues for the potatoes as well.
Wheat will show good winter survival and some years it may be beneficial to plant the wheat and follow that with a Roundup broadcast about a week later. At other times, if for example a wet spring delays potato planting, the wheat could be killer prior to the boot stage and then wait for better potato planting conditions to materialize. Moisture management is very important, especially during dry springs. Early to mid May is generally the best time to kill the wheat, about 1-2 weeks after planting the potatoes. Having an irrigation option will help with adequate soil moisture, for both the wheat stand in the fall and the potato crop in the spring.
Winter wheat also works well as a mixed crop with other small grains. It is an excellent nurse crop for frost-seeding red clover or sweet clover, as long as there is enough rainfall. In areas such as the Corn Belt, legume is usually sown in the winter, prior to the wheat’s vegetative growth resuming. If frost seeding is used, full seeding rates for both species should be followed. If you were to sow sweet clover in the fall along with the winter wheat, the sweet clover could easily outgrow the wheat, making harvest difficult.
Although it is not a common practice, winter wheat can be planted in the spring as a weed-suppressing crop. By doing this, you would sacrifice the nutrient scavenging, but you may wish to do so to for winter kill, spotty over-wintering, or if you did not have time to fall seed.
Wheat is far less likely to become a weed problem in a crop rotation than barley or rye would. When managed as a cover crop, it seldom has an insect or disease risk. If you farm in a humid area, disease can be somewhat of an issue if it is planted early, rather than in the fall. If wheat disease or pest control is a concern in your area, rye or barley may be a better option, despite their far lower grain yield. However, use of resistant varieties or other IPM practices will help avoid most pest problems in wheat grown for grain. Choosing wheat as a cover crop will offer flexibility in late spring or early summer to harvest as a grain crop.