When To Plant Winter Wheat In Iowa

Iowa state is well known for its signature crop, corn, and the farm bill has influenced crop diversity in Iowa. Farmers grow various crops year-round to avoid hunger during the harshest parts of the year when corn is not available.

As a result, winter wheat grew to be used as an alternative food source for livestock and humans alike. With a shorter period from planting to harvest than other crops like corn or soybeans, winter wheat allows farmers maximum production during critical times of need.

Understandably, winter wheat is used by livestock as a staple in their diet, with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants. While the nutritional value of winter wheat does not rival a commercial food product, it can replace commercially produced foods such as bread and pasta.

Here is what you need to know regarding winter wheat’s planting and harvesting patterns in Iowa.

When To Plant Winter Wheat In Iowa

When To Plant Winter Wheat In Iowa

If you want a higher-quality product, wait until after harvest to plant wheat in Iowa. The ideal time for planting is from late April to early May.

Winter Wheat can be planted anytime during the fall or winter, but the best time is later, between October and November.

In Iowa, winter wheat is planted in the fall of the year as a fall or winter cover crop. It is planted in late summer to protect desirable forage crops and provide a living mulch that does not kill insects.

Since winter wheat is a warm-season grain crop, it requires the optimum planting date between August 15th and September 15th to have a safe growing season and tillable soil.

The ability of winter wheat to survive overwintering before reaching reproductive maturity allows it to grow quickly at first and then remain dormant while still protecting the soil from erosion potential due to its rapid growth during warmer months.

Winter wheat is also a green manure crop for both animal and human consumption. Winter cover crop seed is available about a month before planting time.

In the south, winter cover crops are planted at the end of summer. Winter cover crops are planted when temperatures are 60F or lower. That is around the second week of October through November or early March and April when temperatures occasionally drop below 50F only occasionally.

In central and northern Iowa, winter cover crop planting usually occurs from late September to early November.

Early winter planting allows all weather conditions to be considered when determining site preparation. It also provides enough time for any winterkill to occur so that the surviving stalks can be tilled under before planting a cereal crop in the spring.

The best time to plant wheat in Iowa for the highest yield is with the moisture of about 5%–10%. The minimum humidity for winter wheat planting and seeding is about 15%. The ideal temperature range for winter wheat bed preparation is 68 to 72F, with 70 optimal.

How To Plant Winter Wheat In Iowa


Choose a well-drained area with deep soil for planting your winter wheat in Iowa. That allows for better drainage so that plants can get sunshine and stay hydrated enough.

Like other crops in the fall season, fall-planted winter wheat seeds will germinate and grow out before cold temperatures set in for the season. Make sure you use a good amount of fertilizer at planting time. A mixture of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium is recommended.

Plant winter wheat seeds inches deep with their shoot ends pointing at 45 degrees. There should be about 20 seeds per square foot in a row.

Use a planter that puts seeds in sidewinder or drill patterns to avoid wasting seeds. You can also use a disk to slice up the soil for the plants to get their roots down and anchor themselves into the soil better.

After winter, wheat has been in the ground for about a month on that plot, till the soil back up to get rid of those weeds and leave enough space for your winter cover crop.

Usually, the area being planted will get at least 40-50 days of sunlight. That will help your winter wheat to grow faster and larger than it would have otherwise.

When To Harvest Winter Wheat In Iowa

When To Plant Winter Wheat In Iowa

When harvest time rolls around, it is easy to wonder if the wheat is ready for the market. The ideal time to harvest your winter wheat is in the fall when temperatures are much cooler.

In particular, you can harvest your wheat any time after the fall frost has passed, starting from January and February. However, that will depend on the period when you planted your wheat.

In some areas, wheat should be harvested once a green kernel has turned brown. That can vary depending on the type of soil in your area and where you live. The best way to determine if the wheat is ready for the winter period is to check the moisture content of the core. A wheat plant contains three layers:

  • An outer layer that wraps around its seed head
  • A middle layer that sits beneath it
  • An inner layer where starch and protein are stored
  • The core may be white, or a light yellow color due to its nutrients and water content but will turn brown when dry enough—like dusty straw—to be harvested. In addition, wheat kernels should be hard and not green.

Challenges With Growing Winter Wheat In Iowa

Winter wheat is sensitive to extreme weather conditions, especially freeze events.

Although winter wheat can withstand temperatures as low as −40 C, freeze events that occur any time after planting are damaging to winter wheat. The subsequent loss of chlorophyll in the leaves results in chlorosis that causes stunted growth and increased maintenance and management costs.

Further, the loss of chlorophyll and a large amount of free water inside the plant causes a rapid decrease in plant sugars (glucose and sucrose) to levels below what is needed for seed production.

That decrease in plant sugars results in lower yields when compared with traditional varieties.

Winter wheat is susceptible to fall armyworm and Hessian fly.

Fall armyworm and Hessian fly are two pests that affect winter wheat during the reproductive stage of its life cycle. Both pests have four life stages: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults.

Both larvae are gregarious in the spring and are highly mobile for the first few instars before settling down to feed on the host plant for a more extended period until pupation in late summer/early fall.

That gregarious behavior of large numbers of black legless maggots presents a severe threat to winter wheat yields, causing significant damage and reducing crop yields by 50 percent.

Winter wheat is susceptible to frost-freeze injury and yield loss.

Frost-freeze injury or frost damage may occur during wheat’s reproductive or vegetative phases. Unlike Hessian fly, frost damage occurs very early in the growing season before plants mature enough to produce seeds, resulting in poor yields and poor overall crop quality.

Frost damage is caused by the expansion of water in stems, which may cause rupture and a loss of water through transpiration. The resulting physical damage can decrease stem size and seed number.

In some cases, the oxidative stress caused by exposure to cold temperatures can be so severe that plants will wilt and die within 24 hours of the frost event.

Winter wheat is susceptible to root diseases like fusarium head blight (FHB) that reduce yields yearly.

Over the past few years, fusarium head blight (FHB) has been prevalent in winter wheat fields across Iowa state.

FHB is caused by a soil-borne fungus that infects the roots of wheat plants from the crown to the stubble. Infections lead to the degradation of mycorrhizal structures and reduced growth and yield.

Studies have shown an increase in yield loss from 30% to 70% in almost every grain-producing region where the fungus was present.

In North Iowa, fusarium head blight can severely stress winter wheat because it will not tolerate short periods of extreme temperature or water stress.

Iowa is a phenomenal state to grow winter wheat. With its cold winters, Iowa can only grow winter wheat because the long, hard season gives the plant a chance to harden off and protect itself from other elements.

However, you should start your winter crop in September or October, unlike spring or summer crops. As with all crops, farmers must monitor the plant’s health during their harvest cycle.

Apart from that, farmers should monitor the frost-freeze injury, fusarium head blight disease, fall armyworm, and Hessian fly that commonly attack the winter wheat in Iowa.

Related Article: Winter Wheat or Rye For Deer?