Corn overshadows wheat in northern U.S.

In Western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota corn and soybeans are taking over land once seeded to wheat and small grains. The story is similar in Manitoba’s Red River Valley. Their experience might be instructive as seed companies like Monsanto, which recently announced $100 million to develop new corn varieties for Western Canada, promote the crop beyond its traditional base.

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — A nice field of wheat is emerging here in the rich soil and good growing conditions of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.


But regardless of how it turns out, the farmer who seeded it doesn’t expect to make money on the crop.


Across the region, farmers almost never seed wheat for the sole purpose of selling it as a grain. Its profitability lags so far behind corn and other alternatives that farmers immediately supply excuses for growing the grain.


Other crops also once common in this area, such as barley, oats and flax, are rarely seen for the same reason.


It’s been a brutal dethroning of King Wheat from a region once identified with the crop and an almost complete evisceration of the other small grains. It’s all due to the invasion of corn.


When corn comes a-calling, the small grains go a-running.


Some counties in Minnesota grow lots of wheat. Some grow almost none. What’s the difference? Sugar beets.


Substantial acreages of wheat appear in the statistics wherever sugar beets are grown and disappears from county crop stats wherever few sugar beets are grown.


That’s true around the town of Breckenridge, Minn., where farmers grow thousands of acres of sugar beets for the local co-operative sugar factory.


Farmers such as Matt Hasbargen love growing wheat, but it’s strictly a rotation crop for him now.


“If we didn’t raise sugar beets, I doubt we would raise wheat at all,” he said.


Local farmers seed wheat in the season before seeding sugar beets because it breaks the disease cycle. The mainstay crops in region are soybeans, corn and, if a farm is near a sugar plant, sugar beets. Those are where the profits lie. However, corn harbours some of the same diseases that devastate sugar beets, so wheat is grown to cleanse the fields before a money-making sugar beet crop.


“We shoot to break even,” said Hasbargen, who farms 8,000 acres with a brother, his father and uncle.


“That’s our goal.”


It wasn’t always this way. Wheat was the Hasbargens’ No. 1 crop 20 years ago, accounting for 42 percent of their acreage. The farm also put 33 percent of its acreage into soybeans and 25 percent into sugar beets.


Today, the farm grows 39 percent soybeans, 19 percent beets and only 13 percent wheat. 


They also grow 29 percent corn.


Hasbargen said farmers embraced short season corn varieties that made the crop a safe option in the area as soon as they were developed. The trend isn’t likely to change. 


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Wheat’s decline from supremacy seems unstoppable. Short season corn varieties offer farmers the chance to grow the mainstay midwestern crop, and ever-increasing yields have made it more profitable. 


Corn yields were 110 to 120 bushels per acre when the crop arrived in the area 20 years ago, but farmers now expect more than 160 bu. per acre. 


However, wheat yields have been stagnant, making the crop less competitive.


Hasbargen said embracing corn hasn’t been easy for local farmers. It’s expensive to grow, much more storage is needed and there is now far more trucking to move the bulky crop. However, money talks, and wheat is quiet these days.


A few kilometres north of Fargo, N.D., Tom Christensen also has to find excuses for growing wheat.


“For rotation,” he said, almost apologetically.


“I need straw. I still have cattle.”


Corn has swept away wheat here, too, along with flax and barley. This part of the Red River Valley is hot and wet in the summer, allowing corn to yield well. Wheat still has major acreage west of here, on the higher land outside the valley, but even there corn is pushing west, displacing King Wheat.


Not only does corn generally produce better returns than wheat, but growing it isn’t such a gamble.


“You could plan for 50 (bu. per acre of wheat), but you might get 40, or 30, or 80,” said Christensen.


“Corn is more consistent.”


It doesn’t help that wheat has become harder to market. Its price is already affected by protein content, and now buyers have started adding new specifications and penalties.


“They started discounting for falling number,” said Christensen.


“They picked away at the market. Wheat became unpredictable.”


Corn seems to have crowded wheat out quickly when looked at with a two-decade perspective, but Christensen said the transition occurred gradually as farmers adjusted to the reality of returns and swallowed the costs of new equipment and management.


“It took us a while to gear up for corn,” he said.


“We didn’t have the headers. We didn’t have the trucks. We didn’t have the storage. We didn’t have a way to handle the trash until some of this vertical tillage came in.”


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Corn took over for most people once those technological hurdles were cleared.


For Christensen, wheat is now mostly about the straw, and that’s all to do with the cattle. However, having cattle in the Red River Valley is also becoming rare and hard to justify.


“I wonder why we’re still raising cattle,” said Christensen.


Having a mixed farm with livestock and a range of crops was the ideal most farmers attempted to attain in the 1980s, when diversification was the buzzword. However, it now seems to lead to more challenges and lost opportunities.


Christensen said he sticks with a bigger crop mix than many neighbours, especially younger farmers. He keeps the cattle because he’s cautious and doesn’t like to have all his eggs in one basket.


However, it’s getting harder to justify.


“When you look at six or seven dollar corn, and you look at the land we tie up with cattle, you wonder why we raise cattle and wheat,” he said.


Many farmers have accepted the agronomic and financial attractions of corn and have dropped or reduced wheat acres. 


However, that doesn’t mean farmers don’t want to grow it.


They express a desire throughout the region to get back into wheat, but only if breeders can find a way to for yields to catch up to corn’s gains.


“Most people in this area still like to raise some wheat, even if they’re not a sugar beet producer,” said Hasbargen, recalling memories of intense August harvests that have now mostly disappeared.


“We all grew up raising wheat. It’s a really nice crop to grow. It’s simpler than a lot of other crops. It has a lot of advantages.”


He said many farmers wonder if the last 20 years have been an unusually wet spell, which has allowed corn to do well. If a dry period commences, wheat might make a big comeback.


It wouldn’t need to beat corn returns, just match them.


“If we could get the same return on wheat as we get on corn, I think we’d wonder why we grow corn at all,” said Hasbargen.


Christensen also hopes wheat comes back. He’s encouraged by the possibility of using chopped wheat straw mixed with corn syrup from a local ethanol plant to create a complete cattle feed. The crop could also regain acres if drier weather returns.


“This area is perfect for wheat,” he said.


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Seeing what has happened in his area, Christensen asked: “So what’s happening in Canada? Are you all going to switch to corn and beans?”