Reducing costs and improving profits for wheat growers

Follow these suggestions to reduce variable cash expenses for wheat production and add value to the enterprise or rotation.

Wheat field

To support discussions regarding potential ways to reduce variable cash expenses for wheat production, the following are some comments relative to selected variable cash expenses within a budget. While some suggests are way off the mark for some farms, other individual operators may find one or two suggestions worth considering. There are also a couple of suggestions for adding value to the enterprise or rotation.


Tillage costs may run $12 to $30 an acre. In the short and long term, farmers might explore ways to reduce tillage costs including single-pass light tillage or by using no-till for selected fields.

Variety selection

Select varieties for high yield and disease resistance. Use the Michigan State University Wheat Performance Trials and other data sources to make decisions. Planting certified, treated seed is recommended, but if you choose to plant bin run seed make sure you clean and treat.


Although barley yellow dwarf virus is very rarely found today, the Hession Fly free date is still a good target date to start planting wheat. Plant as close to that date as possible. After Oct. 1, yield potential decreases by nearly 1 bushel per acre per day. Plant earlier maturing soybeans on ground planned for wheat to allow for earlier planting. Seeding rates should be increased with later seeding dates.

Nitrogen fertilization

Nitrogen fertilizer is critical to profitable wheat production. Identifying a realistic yield potential (YP) can help reduce nitrogen costs as unrealistic expectations will result in the over application of nutrients. Although application of 0-20 pounds of nitrogen in starter may assist with early season plant development, studies continue to show no yield penalty with zero nitrogen starter fertilizer. If wheat is planted early and two to three tillers produced in the fall, you can apply nitrogen in one application at Feekes 5-6. If poor or no tiller development in the fall, apply 40 percent of nitrogen early in the spring (i.e., green-up) to encourage tiller development. Apply the balance at Feekes 5-6.

Split applications of nitrogen can become beneficial, but most often only when nitrogen losses occur or are suspected. Do not split unless weather conditions force you to. Urease and nitrification inhibitors are another tool to consider, but economic and yield benefits may only be realized under nitrogen loss conditions.

Phosphorous, potassium and sulfur fertilization

Apply phosphorus and potassium according to soil test and apply as a pre-plant incorporation in the fall. Wheat has shown responsiveness to sulfur fertilizer. Apply up to 25 pounds of sulfate sulfur per acre in the fall or spring.

Micro nutrient fertilization

While micronutrients are essential for crop growth, recommendations are not based entirely on soil or tissue testing as some crops are more sensitive to low micronutrient availability. If visual plant deficiency symptoms are not observed, applications will not cost effective.


Although wheat and other grasses perform well over a wide range of pHs, maintaining a target pH of 6.5 may be just as important to productivity as nutrient availability. When determining what to cut to save money, liming is not an area that should be considered. Proper soil pH must be maintained in order to have good crop growth and yields.


Wheat is generally more competitive to weeds than row crops, so there are many fields in Michigan where no herbicide is used. In other cases, herbicides are a must and there is limited opportunities to reduce costs other than to shop-around for the best price. Where there is only a few broadleaf weeds to contend with, some growers might be able to restrict their application to just the perimeter of a field. In other cases, less expensive products may be adequate. An example would be using 2,4-D where one has a good handle on the types of weeds present and on the growth stage of the wheat to be sprayed (see the 2019 MSU Weed Control Guide for Field Crops (E0434) from Michigan State University Extension).

Plant growth regulators

Plant growth regulators can be helpful in reducing lodging and thereby preserving grain yield and quality. However, for those needing to reduce their expenditures, the risk of lodging can usually be managed by using appropriate rates of fertilizer nitrogen, selecting lodge-resistant varieties and avoiding excessive seeding rates and tillering.


Using fungicides has proven beneficial in many cases. However, with the use of more disease resistant varieties, their use can be reduced in some cases particularly in low to moderate yield environments and where growers are willing to monitor disease levels. In high yield environments, especially when growing soft white winter wheat, an application at flowering is usually beneficial. Fungicides used at first joint may not be cost effective depending on the season’s weather pattern, the variety being grown and whether its application requires an extra trip across the field. Generic products should also be considered as they may represent several dollars per acre in savings.


Insecticides are rarely necessary or cost effective in wheat production and, therefore, routine use is not encouraged. The financial savings is relatively small but preventing the loss of beneficial insects can be significant. Scout fields for any excessive populations of aphids in wheat tillering stages and watch for potential armyworm outbreaks after heading.

Crop Insurance

The level of risk a farm can take is based on their financial position and personal risk tolerance. In many cases, crop insurance is a must in order to keep the farm financially viable. Don’t cut crop insurance unless you are able to financially handle a crop failure.

Grain harvest

Start harvest at 20 percent grain moisture. Yield and quality reductions can occur if periodic rains delay harvest beyond optimal times. Even though you will incur grain drying costs, you will reduce risk associated with preharvest sprouting, fusarium head blight and "phantom" yield losses associated with cycles of wetting/drying of grain in the field.

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