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New Energy Economics: Is There Enough Time to Harvest Wheat Straw?

Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist
With expanding acreage of other fall crops, the number of days to collect wheat straw could be limited if a producer wants to complete tillage before moving on to other fall crops.

By Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist

NDSU Extension Service

One of my projects is to evaluate the feasibility of collecting wheat straw for the Dakota Spirit AgEnergy plant being planned near Spiritwood, N.D. An important question needing to be answered early on was if farmers or a custom baler would have enough time during the busy fall harvest season to bale wheat straw.

After harvest, most wheat farmers bale straw for their livestock, spread the straw with a drag, chisel plow the land in preparation for next year or leave the straw untouched for no-till planting next spring. With expanding acreage of other fall crops, such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers, the number of days to collect wheat straw could be limited if a producer wants to complete tillage before moving on to other fall crops. However, just how many days are available to collect the wheat straw?

Initially, we received quite varied responses when inquiring about the length of time between harvest and tillage. Farmers participating in a focus group said that any straw collection activity had to be completed within two weeks of harvest. They suggested that limited fall field days later on necessitated a timely completion of wheat straw tillage when weather allowed.

A colleague at NDSU stated that two weeks was too long. He noted the goal is to control volunteer wheat growth and weeds, so tillage couldn’t wait any longer than seven to 10 days. A respected Minnesota farmer I know said that wheat tillage practices are highly variable in the region, with substantial land remaining unworked for months.

These statements left me with tilling estimates ranging from seven days to several months. However, I needed a more precise estimate because if a custom baler was asked to do all of the baling for the plant within a seven-day window, the custom operator would need a huge fleet of balers to supply the plant’s entire need.

The only sure way to arrive at a precise answer was to monitor how rapidly farmers tilled their wheat straw acreage after harvest. Each week from Aug. 18 to Sept. 9, I drove from Fargo to Carrington and counted how many fields were tilled, dragged or left untouched. Since the wheat harvest essentially was completed during the first two weeks of August in this region, these survey time periods represented one to four weeks after harvest. Nearly 130 fields were monitored.

Counting fields isn’t as easy as it seems! First, do I adjust the tally based on field size? In other words, does a small field that is tilled influence the results as much as a large field that is untouched? How about partially tilled fields? Some farmers work headlands and low spots but leave other portions of the field untouched. Finally, how far do I strain my eyes and try to include fields that barely can be seen in the distance?

In the end, I enumerated fields within eyesight of the road, which generally was a mile on each side. No attempt was made to weight the results by field size. Also, a field that was partially tilled was enumerated as a fully tilled field. Such activity generally was along field edges and waterways. Even though undisturbed land remained, it was assumed any straw on those fields would have to be removed prior to partial tillage to avoid congestion and other issues.

The results show that about 20 percent of the wheat straw would have to be baled weekly. There was quite a bit of rain during the fourth week that slowed tillage. In a normal year, I would expect a faster pace. Therefore, it looks like farmers in the region or a custom harvestor would have at least a month to bale wheat straw for the plant.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Cole Gustafson, (701) 231-7096,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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