Crop Growers Network Meeting Focuses on Organic Wheat

Posted: September 1, 2011

Carl Schmidt, a member of the Central Susquehanna Valley Organic Crop Growers Network, has been growing a rotation of alfalfa, corn and soybeans on his organic crop farm in Muncy, PA for decades. Now, after seeing small grain crops growing at a fellow network members farm last year, Carl has added winter wheat to his rotation to break up weed cycles, create a spot for a red clover cover crop, and pursue high-value artisan wheat markets. Carl hosted a twilight network meeting on July 7 at his farm to look at the mature wheat crop and discuss his production strategies for corn and soybeans.
Carl Schmidt explains how he introduced wheat into his rotation to find a way to grow a red clover cover crop and break up weed cycles.

Carl Schmidt explains how he introduced wheat into his rotation to find a way to grow a red clover cover crop and break up weed cycles.

Carl started off the conversation with a remembrance of the wheat variety his father used to grow, Redcoat, which was adapted for production without fungicides and required half the nitrogen fertilizer as modern day varieties. In fact, a 1960 Penn State Agricultural Experiment Station report named Redcoat as the soft red winter wheat variety that “possesses the best combination of yielding capacity, straw strength, and resistance to major diseases so far bred into a variety adapted to conditions in Pennsylvania.”

Redcoat seed is no longer commercially available, but Carl was able to obtain a seed packet of Redcoat from a USDA seed storage facility through a connection with Elizabeth Dyck, director of the Organic Growers’ Research and Information-Sharing Network in New York. The packet was enough to grow a single 3 foot row of Redcoat, protected against errant mowing or trampling by a ring of traffic barricades. Carl will harvest the grain from this row and use it to plant several rows of Redcoat this fall. It will take several years of expanding the seed supply like this before there is enough seed for Carl to plant a commercial crop of Redcoat. In the meantime, while the Redcoat seed supply is increasing, Carl had planted several dozen acres of Warthog hard red winter wheat, which was standing mature in the field for network members to see.

Hard wheat, as opposed to the soft wheat that is normally grown in Pennsylvania, has a higher protein content and is often milled and marketed as bread flour. In Pennsylvania, markets for hard wheat are still emerging, and because this is the first time Carl has grown wheat in recent years, he still had yet to find a market outlet for the harvest. Luckily, Carl has plenty of bin storage, giving him flexibility in his marketing decisions. In the field, the wheat looked impressive, with a uniform and high head count, very little head scab, no lodging, and minimal weed pressure. Despite the high value of organic straw now that organic dairy farmers must use organic bedding, Carl planned to leave the straw in the field to help boost soil organic matter levels.

Red clover, frost seeded into wheat, establishes under the wheat canopy and will continue to grow after the wheat is harvested.

One of the reasons Carl wanted to introduce wheat into his rotation was to find a way to grow a red clover cover crop and break up weed cycles. Small grain crops like wheat offer the opportunity to frost seed red clover in the early spring. With frost seeding, seed is broadcast overtop of the established small grain crop in March. Freezing and thawing of the soil works the seed into the soil, where it then germinates. As the spring progresses, clover begins to get established in the understory while the small grain crop matures. After small grain harvest, the clover is released from competition and rapidly puts on growth and fixes nitrogen. Carl plans to mow his red clover twice in the late summer and fall, which will stimulate more red clover growth and also cut back weeds that are going to seed or storing energy in underground parts. Being able to mow the weeds in the late summer following wheat harvest breaks up weed cycles in a way that is not possible in soybean and corn crops, which would still be growing in the field at that time.

Next to the wheat was one of Carl’s corn fields where he was growing a 99 day hybrid. This is a shorter season variety than is normally used in Carl’s region, but it will allow him to harvest corn earlier in the fall and get the following wheat crop planted. As is often the case in organic corn production, Carl’s corn planting date is a bit on the later side (last of May, this year) to avoid weed and pest pressure and to ensure fast and vigorous seedling emergence, which is another reason to choose a short season variety. For weed control in corn and soybeans, Carl prefers a rotary hoe over a tine weeder for the first two cultivations. “Tine weeders are too expensive for what you get,” he told the group. Rather, Carl buys rotary hoes at auctions, and salvages the wheels with spoons that are in good condition. After two passes with the rotary hoe, Carl shifts to a cultivator with custom built hilling units that throw soil into the corn row, burying weeds in this difficult to control area. One adjustment Carl has made to his corn planting over the years is to increase the corn population to 29,000 plants/acre. This generates 7” between plants in the row, down from the 8” he started with, which helps the corn stand up better to the soil thrown in the row by the hilling units. Carl’s crop management, in combination with a productive soil and site, have led to some high yielding corn crops. In 2009, Carl’s average corn yield across the whole farm was 197.8 bu/acre, with one field yielding 218 bu/acre.

The evening ended with a supper graciously prepared by Carl’s family and informal conversations that lasted into the dark. Thanks again to Carl and the other network members who host and attend these events, making the meetings a valuable learning opportunity for all.