Winter Wheat: The Duck-Friendly Crop

New partnership is a win-win for farmers and waterfowl

—Steve Adair, Ph.D.

A new partnership between Ducks Unlimited and Bayer CropScience has great potential to dramatically increase winter wheat acres across the U.S. and Canadian prairies. This partnership, Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action, is an education and research initiative, which promotes improving agricultural productivity while maintaining wildlife habitat. Incorporating winter wheat and reduced tillage on existing croplands will boost the fall waterfowl flight and create a more sustainable prairie landscape.

To be successful on the breeding grounds, ducks need abundant, healthy wetlands and extensive nesting cover. Healthy wetlands provide rich food resources to meet the nutritional requirements of laying and incubating females. Female dabbling ducks nest in uplands up to a mile from their "home pond." Extensive research by DU and our partners has shown that nest success improves as the percentage of grassland increases on the land surrounding the nest. After ducklings hatch, females lead them back to wetlands where they gorge on insects and hide in dense cover to avoid predators. When these habitat features are in place, waterfowl populations fluctuate naturally with precipitation cycles.

For thousands of years, these requisite wetlands and associated nesting cover were provided in the Prairie Pothole Region's native grasslands. When runoff from a thick blanket of winter snow fills prairie wetlands, waterfowl populations flourish. When conditions are drier, many waterfowl overfly the prairies and persist in the parklands and boreal forest.

Native grasslands continue to provide the backbone of North America's waterfowl production, and conserving them is one of DU's highest priorities. However, beginning in the late 1800s, the grasslands in the deeper soils of the Prairie Pothole Region began to fall to the plow to feed a growing human population. This conversion has continued so that today most of the eastern prairies are extensively cultivated.

Breeding pairs of ducks continue to be attracted to wetlands in the eastern prairies, but most nests are destroyed by predators searching thin strips of cover around wetlands or by farm machinery working crop fields in the spring. It is in these landscapes that optimism must be balanced with realism. With growing world demand for grain, it is highly unlikely that native grasslands will return to the eastern prairies in the foreseeable future. So what can we do where there is no grass? Enter alternative nesting covers.

When commodity prices are down, landowners are often attracted to less risky land uses like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This Farm Bill program pays landowners to plant marginal cropland back to grassland under 10- or 15-year contracts. For the past two decades, CRP has added nesting cover to cropped prairie landscapes and provided a significant boost to waterfowl populations. With recent increases in commodity prices, CRP has lost some of its appeal, and many landowners have opted not to re-enroll in the program. How do we make up ground on intensively cropped landscapes?

Beginning in the early 1990s, DU staff saw promise in winter wheat. This crop is planted in September, overwinters under the snow, and then grows rapidly as the soil warms in spring. Since there is no cultivation or planting during the nesting season, breeding waterfowl do quite well in winter wheat. In fact, research on the Canadian prairies has shown nest success in winter wheat often exceeds 20 percent. This results in 24 times more nests hatching in winter wheat fields than in spring wheat fields.

Nest in winter wheat
Winter wheat provides good upland nesting cover for ducks on intensively farmed landscapes. / Credit: Scott Stephens, DU
During the early years of DU's promotion of winter wheat, staff diligently studied the benefits from both agronomic and economic perspectives. Results showed winter wheat had several advantages for producers. Planting both winter and spring crops spread the workload and reduced production risks. When best management techniques were employed, winter wheat consistently provided greater yields than spring wheat, which was important to overcome price discounts for winter wheat. These positive results combined with research, promotion, and assistance from agronomists helped winter wheat buck the trends. While acreage of all other wheat types on the prairies has declined during the past 10 years, winter wheat acreage has increased. The North Dakota Natural Resources Trust; North Dakota Game and Fish; and South Dakota Fish, Wildlife and Parks provided critical financial support during early winter wheat efforts.

Over time, the success of winter wheat started to get noticed. Several crop protection companies began to provide support for grower incentives, research, and demonstration plots. Then in 2008, a significant breakthrough occurred. Bayer CropScience encouraged us to “think big” and challenge them with an investment that would take winter wheat to the next level across the U.S. and Canadian prairies. In 2009, we formed a business partnership with a long-term goal of 11.6 million acres planted annually in winter wheat on the U.S. and Canadian prairies. This partnership was coined Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action. Reaching the 11.6 million-acre goal would contribute approximately 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year. Since winter wheat is part of a no-till rotational cropping system, it also improves soil health, sequesters carbon, and reduces runoff in nearby lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Both DU and Bayer share a commitment to stewardship, and winter wheat is a promising crop for achieving sustainable land use on the prairies.

Currently, there are approximately 2.3 million acres of winter wheat on the U.S. and Canadian prairies, so reaching our long-term goal is no small task. Our winter wheat partnership is tackling this challenge in many ways. Most producers and agronomists agree the primary limitation on winter wheat acres is a lack of varieties with increased cold hardiness. Improving yield, grain quality, and disease resistance would also increase the appeal of growing winter wheat. Bayer CropScience and DU are developing partnerships with the University of Saskatchewan, Agriculture and AgriFood Canada, North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Minnesota to pursue improved varieties.

Like any emerging product or idea, getting the word out is vital to increasing winter wheat production on the prairies. Our winter wheat partnership is doing that by putting more agronomists on the ground across the pothole region, especially in North Dakota. These agronomists work directly with producers to advocate including winter wheat in crop rotations, provide technical advice, and serve as conduits for the latest information. They also work with producers, university extension agents, agricultural supply companies, and a variety of other partners to conduct field trials demonstrating products and techniques that reduce risk and improve yields. Communications staff with DU and Bayer have increased efforts with the media and at trade shows to improve awareness of the partnership and sustainability platform.

Lastly, while we have solid data on winter wheat's benefits to waterfowl in Canada, landscape differences in the United States require us to confirm its benefits here as well. The presence of CRP and large blocks of native prairie provide waterfowl with different nest-site choices and influence the predator community in ways that may result in different impacts in the United States. DU is working with Montana State University to analyze nesting success and nest-site selection over a three-year period. Scientists are also conducting a thorough review of published studies to provide direction for exploring benefits of winter wheat rotation on water, soil, and air quality.

Achieving DU's vision of skies full of waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever requires us to secure sufficient habitat in critical places like the Prairie Pothole Region. Winter wheat is part of that solution along with other alternative nesting covers like CRP and grass crops as well as the most important cover, native prairie. We are fortunate to have a partner like Bayer CropScience to not only promote winter wheat but also share a vision of sustainable land use.

Dr. Steve Adair is director of DU's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, North Dakota.


The Profitability of Winter Wheat

Tell a producer that winter wheat enhances stewardship, and you might get his attention. Tell him that it enhances his bottomline and improves the efficiency of his operation, and he will invite you in for a cup of coffee and a serious visit. While DU and Bayer CropScience are confident winter wheat provides wildlife benefits, we know that to reach our acreage goals it has to provide operational benefits for landowners.

As part of a rotational cropping system, winter wheat spreads the workload between fall and spring plantings. It also reduces weather-related risks by diversifying planting and harvest times. The higher yields of winter wheat allow it to be competitive at the elevator with other spring crops. Many of the investments of Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action are aimed at further enhancing the profitability of winter wheat, which will influence producers' decisions more than any other factor. For more information about this winter wheat partnership in Canada, go to www.ducks.org/winterwheat/canada (PDF), and in the United States, go to: www.ducks.org/winterwheat/USA. For more information about Bayer CropScience, visit www.bayercropscience.com.