While farmers across the central plains were gradually easing away from planting wheat, the Horton brothers were doubling down.
Over the past 10 years, Rick Horton and his younger brothers Matt and Alec put together a business at Leoti, Kansas, that consists of portable wheat seed cleaning and seed treatment along with selling certified seed from more than a dozen varieties they test annually on their own farm.
Is wheat worth it? That was the title of Rick and Alec Horton's joint presentation during the High Plains No Till Conference, hosted by the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, in Burlington. It's clearly a question many farmers were asking themselves last fall when deciding whether to put seed back in the ground for summer harvest.
For many of them, the answer was resoundingly no. In the end, farmers reported planting the second fewest acres of winter wheat in recorded history. Kansas plantings fell by 13 percent from the previous year; Oklahoma, by 10 percent, and Colorado, by 6 percent, resulting in a solid 10 percent drop overall.
"Wheat's down by 100,000 acres in Colorado," said Joe Westhoff, a seed and trait specialist with Colorado Wheat. "We would have seen an even bigger impact except that a lot of farmers didn't have anything else they could plant."
The acres with the best yield potential were most likely to get shifted to other crops, which could further compound the pullback.
To be fair, the High Plains region has been diversifying its crop mix for years as no-till and rotational cropping become increasingly popular.
Brice Custer, a farmer from Hays, Kansas, is a good example. By testing various cropping patterns on his own farm and then running the numbers, he concluded he could save $160 an acre by eliminating wheat from his rotation.
Custer has found that milo followed by milo followed by a cover crop (rather than a winter fallow period) reduces inputs and trips across the field, ultimately netting him the best return of every cropping scenario he's tried.
"In 2016, I did make $25 an acre on my wheat. That surprised me," he said during the no-till conference where he was a speaker. "I thought I was going to lose money on it."
What saved him, though, were record-shattering yields common across the region last year. Those are not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Looking ahead to next year, he's concerned. His numbers show that if he harvests an average crop, he'll end up losing around $80 an acre on wheat.
Custer chose to plant less than half the wheat he normally does.
"This is the least amount of wheat we've ever planted on our farm, and I wouldn't have that much if it wasn't for some of our landlords," he said. "With these prices, it's going to be a tough road ahead for all of us."
In addition to ramping up his milo production, he's added more corn and also barley, which, as a non-genetically modified feed crop, he hopes to eventually sell to area dairies and maybe feedlots as well as to craft breweries.
Rick Horton admits he and his brothers had to get creative and work a little harder to sell their seed wheat last fall. At well over $4 dollars a bushel on the board, new-crop wheat looks pretty decent, he noted. The problem, however, is that country elevators are still swamped with grain, pushing the local basis to $1.30 or more in many locations.
The basis, or the difference between the futures price and the local cash price, "used to be thought of as transportation cost," Westhoff said. "Well, it's not. It's more of a supply and demand tool."
The Hortons, who farm 12,000 acres stretching between Leoti and Garden City, believe wheat will remain a staple of the region. Wheat offers desirable residue that helps restore soil organic matter and boosts yields of successive crops, they say.
Alec Horton also points out that there's been a surge of investment in wheat variety research in recent years, which is now paying off in improved genetics.
The Hortons are also demonstrating that by intensifying wheat management — in other words, treating it more like high value irrigated corn — farmers can get better results. They run tests on their own fields and closely monitor the results, collecting production tips to share with their customers.
With field-wide yields topping out at more than 120 bushels an acre, they've won recognition in state and national yield contests. Ultimately they've seen numbers as high as 176 bushels per acre register on their combine yield monitor.
One of the lesser-used wheat practices they promote is treating seed with neonics to protect yield potential. "We think of it as an insurance policy," Rick Horton said. They also add a secondary treatment of micronutrients they say gives them another 3 to 5 bushel boost. They are quick to apply fungicides if foliar diseases begin to emerge. And they are rigorous about their seeding rates.
It's counterintuitive, but yields actually decrease if seeding rates get above an optimal level, especially in dry climates. The key is to put the emphasis on achieving robust healthy plants and aiming for larger heads, they say.
"Seeding rates can increase your yields by 10 bushels an acre pretty easily," Horton said. "But as you lower the seeding rate you have to make sure what you drop is coming out of the ground. We always use treated seed and certified seed that we know is viable."
Other strategies they recommend are planting varieties with differing maturity rates to diversify risk, always insuring adequate soil fertility and adding a 50-cent per acre adjutant to fungicides to improve effectiveness.
They're also sold on applying conditioned manure that's been turned four to six times to kill weed seeds.
The approach isn't any one thing; it's everything combined, Rick Horton said.
"Nothing alone is a silver bullet," he said. "It's a package deal."
Unfortunately the best wheat management won't remove the backlog of grain weighing on the market. Some experts predict it could take two or three years to work through the glut.
That suggests the wheat industry needs to look beyond improving yields to diversifying markets.
"What we need is an ethanol for wheat, some kind of domestic use that will take up one-third of what we produce," Westhoff said. "Just think where the corn price would be today without the ethanol market."