Like a lot of other farmers in the Southeast this year, Andy Wendland has increased his wheat acreage. But this is not new territory for the central Alabama grower, who says wheat has been a mainstay on his family's farm for many years.
The Autauga Farming Co., Inc., has been in existence in some form or another since about 1919, with the management of the operation consisting of Andy, his father Milton A. “Buzz” Wendland, farm manager Bill Lipscomb and Andy's sister Suzie, who helps with the financial management and planning of the farm.
“We've grown wheat for a long time,” says Wendland. “This year, we increased our acreage by about 25 percent to 600 total acres. It's a good rotation for us, especially with our cotton and corn land. But it doesn't work everywhere. For example, if we have a ryegrass problem, we would take that land out of wheat and rotate to one of the other crops.”
Wendland says wheat is just one component of a diversified operation. “Cotton has been a long-time staple of the farm and it will continue to be. We will keep growing it because we've made such an investment in it, and it really fits in well with our overall operation. It's also a forgiving crop. We even made a little during last year's drought. We have our own cotton gin on the farm, and we're our own best customer. We've gone up and down with our corn acreage, not so much with the market but it's a good rotation and a good alternative for our livestock. We also have a hunting operation, and people like to hunt deer and shoot doves over the standing corn,” he says.
Corn is not always an easy crop to grow, says Wendland, because there's no irrigation on his farm.
But cattle have always been raised on the Autaugaville, Ala., farm, he says.
“We run about 800 mama cows in a cow-calf operation. We reverted back to pasture on some of our land that wasn't the best crop land. Cattle are an integral part of our farm, and we are in the cattle business to stay,” he says.
The wheat grown on the Wendland farm is used for several purposes, says Andy. “A lot of it is used for seed — we have grown some Foundation seed for the Alabama Crop Improvement Association. We also use it for cover crops, and we'll plant some of it back ourselves. Whatever we can't store we usually sell on the cash market. Storage is a challenge here because we don't have an abundance of nearby bins, so it's important that we get it harvested and moved out,” he says.
Wendland says he has moved towards planting more public varieties because of the flexibility they offer.
“We're planting Georgia Gore, and a lot of other people are planting the public varieties because they give you the flexibility to do with them whatever you need. We have grown some of the improved varieties, and I really liked them, but you don't have the latitude in selling the seed if someone plans on planting them. We're sacrificing some of our yield with a public variety, but I'm hoping there will be some improvements because of the increased interest in planting them. When we sell to our neighbors, they want to put it out as a harvestable crop, cover crop or as grazing for cattle, and we want to stay within the rules. That's why we need the flexibility of public varieties,” he says.
Wendland says they prefer to have their wheat planted by Nov. 15, but that's not always possible with cotton harvest looming.
“We're trying to juggle our cotton harvest at the same time as we're trying to plant wheat. This past season wasn't a problem, but at times it can be. We like to have the ground prepared well in advance. Over time, we have moderated our approach to tillage. We usually would go in with some form of deep tillage, whether it be a v-rip or Para-Till. We have moderated into some chiseling, breaking out the old chisels we weren't using very much and modifying some of our old anhydrous rigs.
“We're going in the 6 to 8-inch range whenever we can. We have followed some of our row crops that were deep tilled, and that has worked fine. On ground that needs it, we'll at least use a chisel — that has worked pretty well for us.”
Wendland says he learned from his father the importance of timeliness when planting wheat. “The rainfall can be so uncertain. You can get a heavy rain and not be able to get back into the field and get it planted for two weeks. It's critical that your ground is ready for planting when you feel the time is right. We have gotten it in late some years, and it hasn't worked out so well. It's critical to have seed in the ground and to have that seed-to-soil contact at the right time.”
Regular soil tests help to determine Wendland's wheat fertilization program, usually consisting of a mixed fertilizer ahead of planting and before fall field preparations. At about the first part of February, he adds a shot of liquid nitrogen and maybe an application of 2,4-D or Osprey as needed for weed control.
“We haven't really had an insect problem, but if we did, we'd make those treatments at the same time with the ground rig. We treat all of our seed with fungicides. This year, we used Dividend on pretty much everything. We feel certain that will pay off in the end,” he says.
Timing means everything when it comes to wheat harvest, says Wendland.
“You need to get wheat out when the weather is right. Spring rains can set in and it'll take a long time for the wheat to dry out, so it's important to get it out when you can. Sprouting also can be a real problem during a wet harvest season, and it can cost you. Our nights are very heavy with humidity, so we can't run as late as other parts of the country unless we want to go to the expense of drying it.”
Wendland is glad to see the rising fortunes of wheat and hopes it'll mean an economic boost for farmers. “We're fortunate to be as diversified as we are. We've developed some long-term, reliable markets with our cattle, and we're also confident in our cotton marketing with the Autauga Quality Cotton Association. This surge in the wheat market is another component that should help us — the opportunity is there if we can take advantage of it.”
So far this year, the wheat crop is looking good, he says. “Weather has been very favorable for us. It's out of the ground and in good shape. We had adequate moisture in January, and everything looks as though it's right on time. But things can change in a hurry.”
In the end, says Wendland, he tries to manage wheat as if it were any other row crop.