By Ignacio Ciampitti, Extension Cropping Systems Specialist
and Doug Shoup, Southeast Area Crops and Soil Specialist
Double cropping after wheat can be a high-risk venture. The available growing season is relatively short. Heat and/or dry conditions in July and August may cause problems with germination, emergence, seed set, or grain fill. Still, the good soil moisture conditions so far this year improve the odds of success.
The most common double crop options are soybean, sorghum, and sunflower. Other possibilities include summer annual forages and specialized crops such as proso millet or other short-season summer crops – even corn. Cover crops are also an option for planting after wheat.
One major consideration before deciding to plant a double crop or cover crop after wheat is the potential for herbicide carryover. Cover crops can be challenging in this regard. There is little or no mention of rotational restrictions for specific cover crops on the labels of most herbicides. If a crop isn’t listed on the label, that doesn’t mean there are no restrictions.
Generally, there are statements on most labels that indicate “no other crops” should be planted for a specified amount of time, or that a bioassay must be conducted prior to planting the crop. Most of the brassica, or mustard type, crops are likely to be very susceptible to residues of the sulfonylurea herbicides.
Management considerations, production costs, and yield expectations for several double crop options are discussed below.
Soybeans are probably the most commonly used crop for double cropping, especially in central and eastern Kansas. With glyphosate-resistant varieties, often the only production cost for planting double crop soybeans in recent years has been the seed, an application of glyphosate, and the fuel and equipment costs associated with planting and harvesting. However, with the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds, additional herbicides may be required to achieve acceptable control and minimize the risk of further development of resistant weeds.
The cost for weed control can’t really be counted against the soybeans, however, since that cost should occur whether or not a soybean crop is present. In fact, having beans on the field may even reduce herbicide costs compared to leaving the field fallow.
Still, it is highly recommended to apply a pre-emergence residual herbicide before soybeans are planted especially if weed resistance to glyphosate has been a problem. Later in the summer, a healthy soybean canopy may suppress weeds enough that a late-summer burndown application may be avoided.
Variety selection for double cropping is important. Soybeans flower in response to a combination of temperature and daylength, so shifting to an earlier-maturing variety when planting late in a double crop situation will result in very short plants with pods that are close to the ground. Planting a variety with the same or perhaps even slightly later maturity rating (compared to soybeans planted at a typical planting date) will allow the plant to develop a larger canopy before flowering.
Planting a variety that is too much later in maturity, however, increases the risk that the beans may not mature before frost, especially if long periods of drought slow growth. The goal is to maximize the length of the growing season of the crop, so prompt planting after wheat harvest time is critical. The earlier you can plant, the higher the yield potential of the crop if moisture is not a limiting factor.
Adding some nitrogen (N) to double crop soybeans may be beneficial if the previous wheat yield was high and depleted soil N. A soil test before wheat harvest for N levels is recommended. Use no more than 30 lbs/acre of N. It would be ideal to knife-in the N. If that’s not possible, banding it on the soil surface would be acceptable. Do not apply N in the furrow with soybean seed as severe stand loss can occur.
Recommended seeding rates for double crop soybeans are no different than for soybeans planted at a typical planting date in a given area or cropping system. Still, seeding rate can be slightly increased if soybeans are planting too late, in order to increase canopy development. Narrow row spacing (15-inch or less) has often resulted in a yield advantage compared to 30-inch rows in late plantings.
Soybeans planted in narrow rows will canopy over more quickly than in wide rows, which is important when the length of the growing season is shortened. Narrow rows also offer the benefits of increasing early-season light capture, suppressing weed control and reducing erosion. On the other hand, the advantage of planting in wide rows is that the bottom pods will usually be slightly higher off the soil surface to aid harvest.
The other consideration is planting equipment. Often no-till planters will handle wheat residue better and place seeds more precisely than drills, although the difference has narrowed in recent years.
What are typical yield expectations for double crop soybeans? It varies considerably depending on moisture and temperature, but yields are usually several bushels less than full-season soybeans. A long-term average of 20 bushels per acre is often mentioned when discussing double crop soybeans in central and northeast Kansas.
Rainfall amount and distribution can cause a wide variation in yields from year to year. Double crop soybean yields typically are much better as you move farther southeast in Kansas, often ranging from 20 to 40 bushels per acre.
Sorghum is another double crop option. Unlike soybeans, sorghum hybrids for double cropping should be earlier maturing. Sorghum development is primarily driven by accumulation of heat units and the double crop growing season is too short to allow medium-late or late hybrids to mature before frost in most of Kansas.
Late-planted sorghum will likely not tiller as much as early plantings and can benefit from slightly higher seeding rates than would be used for sorghum planted at an earlier date. Narrow row spacing is advised, especially if the outlook for rainfall is good.
A key component for estimation of N application rates is the yield potential. This will largely determine the N needs. It is also important to consider potential residual N from the wheat crop. This can be particularly important when wheat yields are lower than expected. In that situation, additional available N may be present in the soil.
Double crop sorghum planted into average or greater-than-average amounts of wheat residue can result in a challenging amount of residue to deal with when planting next year’s crop. Nitrogen fertilizer can be tied up by wheat residue, so use application methods to minimize tie-up, such as knifing into the soil below the residue.
Weed control can be important in double crop sorghum. Warm-season annual grasses such as crabgrass can reduce double crop sorghum yields. Using a chloracetamide-and-atrazine preemergence product may be key to successful double crop sorghum production.
No-till sorghum studies at Hesston documented 4-year average double crop sorghum yields of 75 bushels per acre compared to about 90 bushels per acre for full-season sorghum. A different 10-year study that did not have double crop planting but did compare early and late planting dates averaged 73 bushels per acre for May planting vs. 68 bushels per acre for June planting.
Sunflowers can be a successful double crop option anywhere in the state, provided there is enough moisture at planting time to get a stand. Sunflowers need more moisture than any other crop to germinate and emerge, so the biggest hurdle to sunflower production is getting a successful stand. Once that hurdle is overcome, sunflowers are more drought-tolerant than most crops so the chances of having a yield in any kind of environment are good.
When double cropping sunflowers, producers should use slightly lower seeding rates to reflect the lower yield expectations compared to full-season sunflowers. It is also necessary to use shorter-season hybrids so they bloom and mature before frost.
Weed control can be an issue with double crop sunflowers since herbicide options are limited, especially postemergence. Thus, controlling weeds prior to sunflower planting is critical and may be complicated by the presence of glyphosate-resistant weeds and preplant restrictions with other herbicides. Consequently, double crop sunflowers may be most successful where glyphosate-resistant weeds are not present.
Planting Clearfield or Express Sun sunflowers will provide additional postemergence herbicide options, but ALS-resistant kochia and pigweeds still could not be controlled. Beyond, the product used in Clearfield sunflower, does have activity on annual grasses as well as broadleaves (except for ALS-resistant bioytpes).
Summer annual forages
With mid-July plantings, and where herbicide carryover issues are not a concern, summer annual sorghum-type forages are also a good double crop option. A test planted July 21 near Holton in 2008, when summer rainfall was very favorable, provided yields of 2.5 to 3 tons dry matter/acre for hybrid pearl millet and sudangrass at the low end to 4 to 5 tons dry matter/acre for forage sorghum, BMR forage sorghum, photoperiod sensitive forage sorghum, and sorghum x sudangrass hybrids.
Earlier plantings may be able to produce even more tonnage, as long as there is adequate August rainfall. One challenge with late-planted summer annual forages is getting them to dry down when harvest is delayed until mid- to late-September. Wrapping bales or bagging to make silage are good ways to deal with the higher moisture forage this late in the year.
Is double crop corn a viable option? Corn is typically not recommended for June or July plantings because yield is usually substantially less than when planted earlier.
Typically, corn planted in mid-July has a difficult time pollinating and seldom receives sufficient heat units to fill grain before frost. This was illustrated in a study at the South Central Experiment Field in 2007 where 100 to 112 RM corn planted in late June yielded only 40 bushels per acre compared to over 130 bushels per acre for an April planting. In Manhattan in 2007, the same hybrids planted on June 25 yielded over 130 bushels per acre, which is certainly acceptable but substantially less than the 150 bushels per acre for earlier plantings.
In another study at Manhattan a 112-day corn hybrid planted in mid-July produced nearly 100 bushels per acre. No grain production was expected from that planting, but July rains were above normal at this location, allowing for successful pollination in August and grain fill in September. Note however that the corn could not be harvested until January because it took so long to dry down with the cool fall temperatures. Also note that 2007 was somewhat unusual in the amount and distribution of July and September rains at this location.
Very short-season corn hybrids (80 to 95 RM) have the greatest chance of maturing before frost in double crop plantings, but generally have less yield potential than hybrids that are 100 RM or more used for full-season plantings.
Short-season hybrids often will set the ear fairly close to the ground, increasing the difficulty of harvest. Glyphosate-resistant hybrids will make weed control easier with double crop corn, but there may still be problems with late-emerging summer weeds such as pigweeds, velvetleaf, and large crabgrass. Keep in mind that corn is very susceptible to carryover of most residual ALS herbicides used in wheat.
Volunteer wheat control
One of the issues with double cropping often overlooked by producers is the potential for volunteer wheat in the crop following wheat. If volunteer wheat emerges and goes uncontrolled, it can cause serious problems for nearby planted wheat fields in the fall.
Volunteer wheat can generally be controlled fairly well with glyphosate in Roundup Ready crops. It can also be controlled in sunflowers and soybeans with the labeled postemergence grass herbicides such as Assure II, Select, or Poast Plus, but control is reduced during times of drought stress. Atrazine can provide control of volunteer wheat in corn and sorghum, but can be erratic depending on rainfall patterns.