Wheat is the soil health advantage

Laura Van Eerd details how soil metrics of her long-term experiments were influenced by the reintroduction of wheat.

A wheat field.
Photo by Monica Jean, MSU Extension

Throughout the 1800s, Michigan was the largest producer of winter wheat in the U.S. As the western U.S. and Canada progressed in the market, many Michigan farmers moved away from wheat and on to more profitability crops by 1900. Is it worth it to bring wheat back into your farm’s rotation? Laura Van Eerd’s research shows some compelling reasons why in the newest podcast episode of “In the Weeds.”

Van Eerd, professor of sustainable soil management at the University of Guelph Ridgetown in Ridgetown, Ontario, has been studying the soil characteristics and changes of long-term rotational research. She joined the long-term research project in 2006 to measure the soil nitrogen (N) rates, carbon levels and Cornell Soil Health metrics alongside the team of researchers maintaining the site since 1995. The two sites include four N rates, two tillage types and seven crop rotation combinations. Of all these treatment combinations, the inclusion of wheat has been the greatest factor in improved soil function over time.

Findings have shown that the inclusion of wheat in rotations has greatly increased soil organic matter (SOM) content at these sites. Increasing organic matter (OM) in soils has implications for the soil’s water holding capacity and the soil’s N cycling capability, which Van Eerd has also found to be improved with rotations including wheat when compared to rotations without wheat.

“Often, we think wheat straw left on the field immobilizes N, but after about 10 years the system stabilizes,” said Van Eerd when explaining a surprise finding of progressively increased N pool in fields including wheat after 10 years. While the complete reason for the increased availability of N in corn rotations following wheat are still being researched, Van Eerd has a hypothesis; with OM and more water available, cycling may more readily occur in the soil.

The hope is that this research gives farmers assurance in experimenting. Either experimenting with wheat in their rotations or experimenting with applying less N on a crop following wheat if you have been growing wheat for several years. With the rising price of fertilizers, such definitive findings could be very beneficial for producers in the coming year.

These benefits are not exclusive to wheat. Research finds that the addition of small grains in temperate climates (whether it be rye, oats or barley) have a huge benefit to soil health overall. The price of wheat may still be a limiting factor for many, but Van Eerd suggests that the cost of impact from winter wheat on your corn crop may make the incorporation worth it even when winter wheat prices are not as competitive. Though straw prices may make growing wheat a tad more convincing.

More on this conversation and other findings from Van Eerd’s soils research can be heard in this episode of “In the Weeds” with Paul Gross and Monica Jean of Michigan State University Extension.

Listen here

To hear this podcast episode and more, follow the “In the Weeds” podcast from the Michigan Field Crops team. We discuss pressing issues and upcoming trends in agriculture with farmers, agribusiness professionals, researchers and Michigan State University Extension educators. The podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes and embedded on the Field Crops Team website. New podcasts are posted every week. To receive notifications for new episodes, please subscribe to our feed on Apple Podcast or whenever you listen to podcasts.  

Did you find this article useful?