Extension Wraps-up Southern Minnesota Small Grain Workshop

By Jared Goplen, U of MN Extension Educator

March 2020

The University of Minnesota Extension just wrapped up its southern small grain workshop series with meetings held across southern Minnesota. Over 200 farmers attended the eight locations, including Benson, Cold Spring, Granite Falls, Le Center, Mora, Morris, Rochester, and Slayton. Although small grain acreage in southern Minnesota has been low in recent decades, there is renewed interest in growing small grains for a variety of reasons. The disappointing prices for corn and soybean, coupled with increasing problems with herbicide resistant weeds, soybean cyst nematodes and other corn and soybean pests have farmers thinking about changing things up. Since more diverse crop rotations can help alleviate these issues, along with improving crop yields and profitability in rotational crops, small grains may have a place for some farmers.

The workshops covered topics ranging from variety selection, agronomics, pest management, and enhancing profitability. Growing small grains in southern Minnesota isn’t for the faint of heart, as intensive management is often needed in southern Minnesota to maximize yields and profitability. Heat, humidity, and disease oftentimes wreak havoc on small grains in southern Minnesota. To avoid heat stress and disease issues, it is important to get small grains seeded early. Farmers should have the drill ready so they’re prepared to seed small grains the end of March if field conditions are favorable. Farmers should also have a plan “B” and not be afraid to walk away from small grains if they can’t be seeded by the first week of May. Yield reductions and disease tend to be much more problematic when seeded mid- to late-May. Once the crop is in the ground, fields need to be scouted regularly, as plant diseases or insects can show up any time and cause yield loss. In order to protect high-end yield potential, it is important to have control options on stand-by ready to go.

One of the workshop topics was making small grains profitable in the rotation. One possibility is to think about harvesting straw. Straw prices have been very strong in recent years, easily adding $200 or more in revenue per acre. Since small grains are harvested late-summer they also allow reliable establishment of a forage cover crop that can either be grazed or used as a green manure crop. For livestock producers, adding a forage cover crop following small grain harvest can add significant value to the rotation, as 1-4 tons of dry matter can accumulate before fall. This amount of forage can easily add $100 per acre or more of value when harvested for forage. When evaluating small grain profitability, it is important to account for these other opportunities that are available.

Small grains added to the rotation also enhance rotational crop yields. When corn and soybean are grown in a three-crop rotation with small grains, there is a yield-boosting “rotational effect” which often increases yields 5-10%. Increased yields are also possible with decreased production costs, which can drastically change profitably of the full crop rotation. More diverse rotations help improve soil health characteristics and help reduce insect and disease pressure.

The take-home message from the 2020 small grain workshops is that small grains may not be a good fit everywhere, but there are some situations where small grains should be considered. Especially where additional fall forage may be needed, or in fields with weeds, soybean cyst nematode, or other pest issues. If you are considering seeding a small grain for the 2020 growing season but are wondering how to be successful, check out the University of Minnesota Extension small grains website or contact the small grains team for help.  

Figure 1

Figure 1: Predicted net returns ($ per acre per year) averaged across the crop rotation, using current crop budget projections for crops grown in southern Minnesota. Average input costs from FINBIN data are used along with projected yields and prices for 2020 ($3.60 bu-1 corn, $8.60 bu-1 soybeans, $5.60 bu-1 wheat, $100 ton-1 straw, $100 ton-1 forage replacement value). Adapted from budgets prepared by David Bau and Nathan Hullinsky, UMN Extension.

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