Country Living Series

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Planting hard red spring wheat

Last year we had our first experience (or perhaps I should say, experiment) in planting wheat.

Northern Idaho is wheat country. The grand and beautiful Palouse hills are perfect for growing this most elemental of grains. So my logic was, if they can do it, so can we.

So a couple of years ago, we started prepping a portion of our land for a wheat patch, specifically for hard red winter wheat (which is planted in the fall). (If you scroll down the list of key words on the left-hand side of the blog until you come to "wheat," you can follow our progress throughout the subsequent year.) That first year's experiment culminated in failure, as explained here.

But as with most failures, we learned a great deal. One of the biggest problems we had with winter wheat is we had no way to control the cheat grass that overtook the field. So this year we skipped out on the winter wheat and decided to grow hard red spring wheat. By planting in the spring, this would allow us to disk and cultivate the pasture (which would hopefully get rid of the cheat grass before it got too good a start) before we planted the wheat.

So last fall we bought 200 lbs of DNR (Dark Northern Red) spring wheat. In this photo it looks pinkish-red which is NOT because it's red wheat, but because it's been treated with a fungicide (most seed wheat is). The fungicide is colored red so people don't mistakenly eat it or feed it to livestock. We socked this wheat away in the barn for the winter.

We started prepping the wheat field on May 12. The grassy stuff you see is the early growth of cheat grass. Our hope is that by plowing it at this stage in its growth cycle, we could kill it off without using chemicals.

Don rototilled the pasture on May 28. We were delighted that the cheat grass hadn't grown back!

Next, we wanted to "scratch up" the pasture a bit before planting. Since we're not using a seed drill, one of the things Don discovered last year is that by smoothing the ground TOO much, the seed has a harder time "gripping" the ground and growing. Making little furrows, we hope, will allow the seed to grow better. So Don removed every other tine on the cultivator.

But when he went to cultivate the pasture, it was too muddy thanks to some recent rain. So we had to wait a day or two for it to dry out. We were racing the time because we needed to return the tractor to our sainted and patient friends Mike and Judy, who have been incredibly generous in loaning us their equipment.

The last couple days have been dry and windy, which dried out the pasture. Tonight Don checked the weather and saw a chance of rain and thunderstorms predicted for tomorrow -- which is also when we need to return the tractor. So he came in and said, "If the pasture is dry enough to cultivate, do you want to plant the wheat tonight?"

You bet! So as the sun was setting, he walked along the pasture and determined it was indeed dry enough to cultivate.

While he cultivated, I fetched the 200 lbs. of wheat and some buckets.

The dye in the fungicide left all our hands pink. We were careful not to touch our mouths or eyes after handling the wheat.

Four buckets, ready to go. We're hand-broadcasting, of course.

Meanwhile, the sun went down.

Sorry this shot is blurry, I put my bucket down hurriedly and snatched a picture, but I was trying not to fall behind the rest of the family while broadcasting.

We criss-crossed the field, then criss-crossed again, then criss-crossed again at right angles, trying to distribute the wheat as evenly as possible. We always worked as a single team, moving at the same pace. If one of us emptied his or her bucket first, the rest of us waited while s/he filled it up again.

At last we covered the field as best could. We had just a bit of wheat left over, so we just walked along and sowed the remainder in any bare spots we noticed.

Oops, sometimes too much wheat was broadcast (well, dumped) in one spot. That's a problem with hand-broadcasting. (We're only human.)

But the vast majority of the wheat was more evenly distributed.

Tomorrow Don and I plan to drag some tires over the field to close up the furrows and bury the wheat a bit. We'll see what happens with our wheat experiment this year! However it turns out, one thing's for sure: we're off to a better start than last year.


  1. Very interesting, as for covering the seed a little bit I would think that spring tooth harrow in the picture would work well especially if it was not set too deep and pulled a little faster than normal. I have pulled a section of chain link fence before to cover seed as well.

    1. We used your advice and it worked beautifully. Thank you!

      - Patrice

  2. Can't wait to see how this year's planting turns out. One night a couple of weeks ago, I was driving home across the Palouse and saw lights out in the middle of nowhere. As I got closer, I realized it was a farmer spraying his field. If your evening farming continues, you may need head lamps!

  3. Patrice,

    Looks good,I'm look forward to when you harvest the wheat. Can't wait for updates to this post.
    For broadcasting by hand, ya'll did a great job.

  4. It is best to not handle treated seed with bare hands. As I tell my farmer husband, pesticides are meant to kill things and we are things as well so be careful. Some of the chemicals can be absorbed thru the skin.
    Enjoy your blog very much.

  5. just a thought about hand-broadcasting seed - have you thought about wearing latex surgical gloves? a whole box of them can be purchased from the drugstore and they can be used when doing other things as making sausage patties or hamburgers. i use them when broadcasting grass seed and making anything in the kitchen that is gonna grease up the hands with meaat especially.

  6. Well done.. Like the chain link fence drag suggestion.

  7. Yep. Get thee some cheap gloves, darlin'.

    That said...I might be committing a deadly sin here, but, man, I'm so envious of your wheat field! While I'm at it, I'll break a commandment, too - I covet that tractor.

    Okay...praying for forgiveness now.

    Just Me

    1. LOL -- we covet that tractor too. It's not ours. It belongs to some dear friends who are kind enough to loan it to us.

      - Patrice

  8. This is an amazing amount of work that you have accomplished. Looking forward to seeing it grow.

  9. Those pieces of tire sidewall that you have leftover, chained, wired together make a very effective and cheap drag for covering seed or breaking up manure in pasture's. Good luck with your wheat crop.

  10. I’ve recently purchased 5 acres in the “greater Palouse.” It was used as a horse pasture. I will need to be an absentee landlord for awhile. Any suggestion on what I can just plant on the land to just keep. A neighbor suggested I burn it the existing hay off, but even if I did that (seems a bit dangerous to me) what do I plant to just cover the land?

    Thanks for any thoughts.

    1. Field burning is actually fairly common around here (usually done in August to burn off crop residues such as wheat stubble, etc), but laws regarding burning vary from county to county. Also, field burning is dicey and must be done a certain way to avoid accidental spreading of the fire, so I wouldn't suggest it unless you know what you're doing (or can hire someone who knows what they're doing).

      That said, you might consider just plowing under your acreage and sowing with a green manure such as clover, which is a nitrogen-fixer and will add nutrients to the soil.

      - Patrice