Many hay balers are also straw balers.
Wheat Straw is a no-fuss second business using all the same equipment needed for hay, but without the anxiety caused by maturity issues, rain events, slow drying and crop moisture. Often there is no need to handle the windrows either. Baling a good clean straw is just plain fun.
Most wheat growers are more than happy to sell their straw in windrows to a willing baler, either because it gives them extra income or because they just want to get rid of the crop residue.
The straw market has changed drastically over the years. For decades it was purely a bedding product. Although it is still used as bedding today, most dairy farms have found better bedding alternatives for their cows, especially in free-stall barns. However, all was not lost for the straw market. In fact, it’s better. . . in many areas, much better.
Cows that are now on the sand eat straw as part of their daily Total Mixed Ration (TMR). Straw adds physically effective fiber that helps counteract some of the low fiber forages that are produced and fed. Even when the dairy herd is not fed straw, dry cow TMRs are often laden with golden plant residues. Essentially, the straw market has changed from a market for bedding to a market for animal feed, unless horses are your game.
The value has doubled
It is not uncommon for wheat growers to want to know the fertilizing value of the straw as it is in the field after the combine has passed. Many university estimates of the nutrient fertilizer equivalent of wheat straw can be found. Here are some examples:
State estimates of wheat straw nutrients vary slightly. Most of this variation is likely due to the inherent differences in soils and management practices prevalent in various regions. For example, nitrogen fertilization can impact plant nitrogen content, and straw stubble height will also affect harvested straw nutrient concentrations.
In Wisconsin, a large amount of dairy manure is spread on the fields, which leads to increased phosphorus levels in the soil, and soil potassium levels are kept high for alfalfa production. This is probably why phosphorus and potassium levels in straw are high compared to most states.
These days, fertilizer prices are in the stratosphere compared to years past. It also puts the fertilizing value of straw at record highs. With Nitrogen currently rated at $1.07 per unit, P2O5 at 75 cents per unit, and K2O at 74 cents per unit, then the fertilizing value of wheat straw with 13 pounds of nitrogen, 3 pounds of P2O5and 23 pounds of K2O per ton is about $33 on a dry matter basis. This is more than double what it was a few years ago.
If not packed in the field, the nitrogen in wheat straw will not be immediately available to plants. It must first be mineralized by micro-organisms and transformed into ammonium and nitrate. In fact, leaving the residue on the field will immobilize additional nitrogen in the short term as the mineralization process proceeds. Wheat straw has an extremely high carbon to nitrogen ratio (80:1), so the whole process takes some time.
Wheat residues are a good source of carbon that will ultimately contribute to the organic matter content of a soil. It is difficult to put a monetary value on this, but it is a factor to consider if wheat is repeatedly grown in a particular field and residues are removed. Occasional straw removal (for example, once in a rotation) is likely to have very little impact on long-term soil organic matter content.
Straw is not completely immune to the effects of rain. The best quality straw, both chemically and visually, is always that which is baled as soon as possible after grain harvest, assuming the moisture concentration is low enough for baling.
Over time or during a major rainfall event, precipitation will leach some of the potassium from the tailings. This is probably a bigger problem with corn plant residues than with wheat.
Weed straw will take longer to dry out. Green weeds that are put into the bale can cause the bale to heat up and mold to grow, which could create health issues if the straw is used for horse bedding. It will also make the task much more unpleasant and dirtier if the straw is ultimately chopped up for feed or bedding.
Depending on regional availability and local livestock use, straw can be a profitable business for tedders. In some areas, it is not uncommon to see retail prices approach those of average to good quality hay. There is also additional income to be made for the wheat farmer who does not need the straw beyond the nutrient value of the soil. Remember that these numbers will be much higher in 2022.
Let the straw baling begin!