Alternative Crops for Failed Winter Wheat in the Panhandle

Alternative Crops for Failed Winter Wheat in the Panhandle

May 24, 2013

poor winter wheat stand
Figure 1. With limited soil moisture last fall, delayed planting, and an early spring freeze, many winter wheat stands in the Panhandle are thin. Replanting to an alternative crop is one option at this point in the season.

Even though the Nebraska Panhandle had decent rain last week, many dryland winter wheat fields in the region have poor to very poor yield potential. This is due to several factors.

Much of the dryland wheat was planted into dry soil last fall and didn’t germinate fully or uniformly, leading to poor emergence and plants with less vigor than normal. In addition, many producers planted late, hoping for rain. This led to plant growth that was behind normal going into winter. With a relatively dry winter and an early spring cold spell, the young wheat suffered some freeze injury.

Now topsoil is very dry and subsoil moisture is significantly lower than normal throughout the Panhandle. Total precipitation is still significantly behind the long-term average for late May.

Wheat producers who are wondering what to do with fields with poor yield potential have three choices:

  • First, leave wheat fields as they are, and hope for good precipitation in late spring and early summer to improve yield potential on existing stands.
  • Second, abandon the fields and claim 100% of the appraised value for the failed wheat.
  • Third, plant the failed fields to alternative crops.

Differences among farms and farmers’ situations will dictate the best option for each operation.

Proso Millet, Sunflower Suggested for Replanting

If you determine replanting to an alternative crop is the best choice for your operation, consider the benefits of proso millet and sunflower.

Proso millet is the most suitable alternative crop for replanting in the Panhandle as it is highly adaptable to low moisture and dryland situations. Compared to other common cereals (wheat, corn, or sorghum), proso millet is more efficient at producing decent yields with less water.

UNL has been testing proso millet varieties in the Panhandle for several years. The results of these trials are available on CropWatch in the Variety Testing Section. Farmers can refer to this website to select suitable varieties with high yield potential for their region.

Sunflower is the second alternative crop of choice. When subsoil moisture is lacking, sunflower is one of the better options because of its deep rooting system. UNL has tested a number of sunflower hybrids, including those from Mycogen (part of DowAgro Science), Syngenta (Garst Seed Co.), and Croplan Genetics, (or WindfieldLand O’Lake). Again, check UNL variety test results for alternative crops for suitable varieties.

Proso millet is a very low input crop, and there is no disease or insect pressure that would require chemical spraying. No fertilizer will be needed because of residual fertilizer remaining in wheat fields. Sunflower, however, will require chemical pest control and might require fertilizer, which would likely increase input costs. Proso millet also may be a preferred option due to historically high prices. Over the last 12 months it averaged $27.24 per hundredweight, with recent monthly averages of $35 per hundredweight. Considering all these factors, this year proso millet could be a better choice than sunflower for higher profitability. Be sure to check availability of proso millet seed before choosing that option.

Crop production budgets for sunflower and millet are at

Planting season for both sunflower and proso millet starts in late May and continues until the end of June so producers still have plenty of time to prepare their ground for either millet or sunflower.

Dipak Santra
UNL Alternative Crops Breeder, Panhandle REC


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