By Jessica Johnson and Gary Hergert
Drought in western Nebraska has strained rangeland and other forage production. For some wheat producers, this is a unique opportunity for additional income.
Area cattle producers are creating demand for reasonably priced forage, as alfalfa prices reach and exceed $180 per ton in western Nebraska. Wheat growers might consider two post-harvest options for meeting some of this demand: baling wheat straw and planting an additional forage crop.
Most wheat producers can bale their wheat straw. The dilemma for dryland producers is that residue retention has become an important part of their reduced- or no-till cropping system. Although economically enticing, the drawbacks to removing this straw include loss of nutrients and less moisture retention because of less crop residue.
However, some wheat dryland farmers are baling part of their straw, leaving about 12 inches of stubble to serve as a cover for the upcoming year. On 40-bushel dryland wheat, producers could harvest an estimated 1 ton of straw per acre, or less for semi-dwarf varieties. The cash cost would be approximately $16 per ton.
For irrigated wheat producers, straw removal is a good option. Straw production can be calculated fairly accurately from grain yield. The Harvest Index (ratio of grain to total dry matter) for most semi-dwarf wheat varieties in western Nebraska is about 0.3. An 80-bushel wheat crop will produce over 5 tons of straw per acre. Baling the straw will have a cash cost of approximately $10 per ton in the Panhandle.