Shift in Winter Wheat Prices Causes Growers to Rethink Expenses

How many dollars can you afford to tie up in the crop?

Published on: May 12, 2008

Historically, prices for soft red winter wheat were still at extremely high levels last week. A crop that typically trades between $2.50 and $4 per bushel over the past decade was booking for summer delivery at a country terminal at around $6.50 per acre. So there should be jubilation amongst wheat growers all across Indiana, right?

That's not quite what we've found visiting with farmers growing wheat. Input prices are also at record highs, especially nitrogen. And when wheat was $10 per bushel just a few weeks ago, it made the decision-making process seem a whole lot different. For example, how much can you afford to invest to protect wheat when the price is dropping, even when it's still at historical highs, but input costs if you keep applying chemicals are also at extremely high levels.

Troubles for Hoosier wheat growers who waited to apply topdress nitrogen on wheat until what is usually an ideal time, mid-March, began when conditions turned wet in March and stayed that way until mid-to-late April. Many were ready to hire N flown on, either a full-rate or half-rate, at a cost of $35 per acre just for the application of a full rate. At least a few people did have N flown on, while several others who considered it found that soils dried up just enough to allow ground application before the pilots got to their name on the waiting list. The goal, of course, was to get N on before wheat reached the stage where low N would begin to limit yield potential.

That's just one expense wheat growers have faced. Many in the southern-half of Indiana, at least, have applied a herbicide for weed control. That's an expense that wasn't done much a couple decades ago. But especially in southern Indiana, spraying is necessary, especially in areas infested with wild garlic. Wheat with wild garlic in the load can be severely docked or perhaps rejected.

Now growers report some chemical reps are suggesting they apply fungicides. Inspecting one field of wheat in central Indiana recently, we noted very little disease pressure, even though the stand was thick. However, some chemical dealers are apparently cautioning farmers that if the cool, wet weather continues deep into May, conditions may be right for spread of wheat diseases. Whether an application makes sense depends partly upon the disease package in the variety or varieties of wheat you planted. Varieties susceptible to major diseases might be better candidates for fungicide application that those that have good resistance in their genetics.

Toa void damaging wheat by wheel traffic, fungicide might be flown on. That adds to expense, however, since aerial application is typically more expensive per acre than ground application of the same volume of the same product.

Farmers weighing the decision will need to make it soon. If diseases of any significance develop, it will likely be too late to spray once the symptoms appear.