Research Round Up from the Wilke Farm with Aaron Esser

Wilke Farm.

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Long-Term Agroecological Research and Extension (LTARE)

Wilke Farm

Garett Heineck Wheat Beat podcast episode

Contact information:

Aaron Esser, Regional Extension Agronomist, Lincoln-Adams Extension,

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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My guest today is Aaron Esser. Aaron is with WSU Extension in Lincoln and Adams Counties. He has been with WSU for 25 years. In conjunction with his traditional Extension program, he has served as chair for the WSU Wilke Farm Management Committee for the last 12 years. The WSU Wilke Research and Extension Farm is a 340-acre facility on the eastern edge of Davenport, Washington, in the intermediate rainfall zone.

Hello, Aaron.

Aaron Esser: Hello, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, I know you have a long-term history comparing the different large scale crop rotations on the Wilke Farm. Can you talk a little bit about what happened in 2022 in these rotations?

Aaron Esser: Yeah, thanks. You know, as you go through and look at the farm, we have the large-scale rotation fields. These are about 25- to 30-acre fields. And when you go through half of them or on the south side of the road, we have the four-year rotation, which is summer fallow, winter wheat, broadleaf crop, and spring cereal–that’s kind of a little bit more intensive–and we compare it to a three-year rotation, which is what farmers traditionally have done around the region, and that is just summer fallow, winter wheat, and the spring cereal. So, we’re stretching that out a little bit.

And then on the north side of the farm, we have a continuous crop rotation where we forego summer fallow and we just continuously crop it each and every year. And we’ve had this running now in its current format since 2004. So, 19 years that we’ve been comparing the three versus four and then the continuous crop rotation.

When you go back and look at it, you know, it’s kind of interesting. And, you know, I have a hard time talking about 2022–I mean, it really started with [what] happened in 2021–and I call it going from lemons to lemonade because [in] ‘21 we were really dealt lemons–bad production, hot, dry, miserable. Yields were well below average. But then in 2022, we took what happened in 2021 and really turned that into lemonade in 2022.

You know, when you go back and look [at] our nitrogen-use efficiency this year, which is a number I encourage each and every grower to keep track of. In a lot of instances, I feel it’s more important than actual bushels per acre because nitrogen is such a big part of the whole farming operation and the overall profitability.

When you go back and look this year, the nitrogen-use efficiency was 53 to 60% on our winter wheat following summer fallow. It was 50 to 60% on our recrop winter wheat. We changed up some stuff and went with a lot more recrop winter wheat–I’ll talk a little about [that]. And then our dark northern spring wheat, this year, we were at 41% nitrogen-use efficiency–still not bad given the conditions we had this this summer and stuff and with what happened with some of the some of the areas around.

The winter wheat on fallow, our average yield was 78 to 91 bushels per acre. The continuous winter wheat which went back on to canola ground–planted the recrop back on canola ground–was 52 to 68 bushel an acre. The 68 bushel was on a field of a failed canola crop from 2021. So ‘21 dealt us a lemon, we turned it into 68 bushel recrop winter wheat in ‘22. And so that was kind of part of the lemonade story.

Our dark northern spring wheat went 39 bushel an acre and our canola was over 1300 pounds an acre this last year. So, we really intensified the amount of cropping and it really started, you know, the ‘21 was bad and then going into the fall of ‘21 all the supply chains were happening.

You know, is there going to be Roundup available in 2022? What’s the price of fertilizer if you can get your hands on it? What’s it going to look like in ’22? You know, all this uncertainty, so that’s one of the reasons we made a shift and went with a lot more recrop winter wheat instead of spring wheat.

And when you look at the amount of nitrogen we were packing in the soil, we didn’t have to spend a tremendous amount on nitrogen like some of the individuals had because of the residual fertilizer in the soil and not needing as much.

When you go through and just look at the farm overall, I don’t think my numbers are different than what we experienced across the region, for the most part. On average, our cash costs–when I talk about cash costs, we’re looking at seed, fertilizer, herbicides, and insurance, crop insurance–we’re up over 25% over our 12 years. And that was the third most expensive crop we’ve planted since 2010. And I think, if we would’ve had to buy more fertilizer, it probably would have been our most expensive crop–because once again, 2021, we didn’t use a tremendous amount–we didn’t have to apply as much this year. So it really does pay understanding what you have in the soil.

And then when you look at the revenue, it too is also up. We were up 84% over our 12-year average and that’s the most revenue we’ve generated on the farm since at least 2010–since we’ve really kept specific details on this. And our economic return-over-cost was also the greatest we’ve done in over 12 years.

And I think that was just from pushing the envelope. And I you know what, in farming, there’s so many variables going on. And I always talk about the need to have a plan–a one-year plan, five-year plan, ten-year plan. And we have a plan, but we have to be flexible in our plan and how we go about executing it. And I can’t say enough on taking what happened in ‘21 and turning it into lemonade in ‘22.

Overall, you know, the whole concept is look at the three- and the four-year rotation and continuous crop rotation. This last year, the three-year rotation generated $219 an acre return-over-cost. And when I talk about cost, I’m only looking at, once again, the seed, fertilizer, herbicide, and insurance cost. I’m not looking at any fixed cost or anything else in the operation, just those four things, because the fixed costs are so different from one farm to the next.

But my return-over-costs on the three-year rotation was $219. The four-year rotation we were at $293, and the continuous rotation, we were at $215 an acre. And when you go back and look at–I don’t like looking at specific years–but when you look at it over the three years, a three-year average, that three-year rotation is $151 an acre on average. The four-year rotation is $189 an acre, and the continuous rotation is $179 an acre.

And when you go look at how when we started this program back in 2004, the three-year rotation was always the most profitable. And then the three- and the four-year kind of got closer and the continuous was lagging behind. We’ve made some changes with the continuous rotation–it used to be just cereals and now we’ve allowed canola to come into it and some other things. And over the last five, six, seven years, the three-year rotation is really starting to lag behind. So I think we’re really showing growers that consistently in that intermediate rainfall zone, you can stretch your rotation out—throw a broadleaf in there—and really not suffer on the profitability actually benefit your profitability.

And the one thing I will say too is, it’s much easier to control the weeds in that continuous crop rotation and in the four-year rotation than what we have in the three-year rotation.

Drew Lyon: Okay. That’s rather surprising given how dry 2021 was that the rotation without fallow actually performed as well or better than the rotations with fallow. I wouldn’t have thought that.

Aaron Esser: In ‘21 we were dealt lemonade–or the lemons–because one of the canola crops actually froze and so it was removed. And then we put recrop winter wheat over the top of it. We didn’t have to fertilize that crop,the recrop winter wheat—well starter fertilizer– so we didn’t have a tremendous amount of expense into it. And so we that’s a big portion of it, and it led to 68 bushel recrop [in] our continuous winter wheat.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Very good. So, I know the Wilke Farm is kind of set up for on-farm kind of research. You’ve talked about the rotational work. What are a few of the highlights from some other research that’s being conducted at the Wilke Farm?

Aaron Esser: You’re right, that’s, you know, still the primary focus with the facility is providing a spot for research. When you go look at 2022, you know I have to go through the FSA certification and stuff with the farm, just like farmers do–and I certified 22 acres of research on the farm this last year, most of that being in winter crops but about 5 acres of it was in the spring crops as well.

And when you look at it, we had 12 different–I think I counted up maybe 12 different projects and 9 different researchers who had projects on the farm in 2022. Just kind of a quick rundown of some of the key ones. Aaron Carter keeps his winter wheat breeding plots up there for our intermediate cropping zone. Mike Pumphrey has the aluminum tolerance cultivar evaluation on the farm. You know, soil acidity is a big issue across the region. We’re looking at varieties that do well in more of an acidic soil. Ian Burke and yourself have the plots and focused on herbicide evaluation and long-term weed control. Those are some of the basics that kind of continue on the farm. But then we also have some stuff I call “swinging for the fences and we’ll see what happens.”

Garett Heineck from the USDA-ARS put in a long-term study looking at Kernza® on the farm. So, we’re going to look at that for five years and look at the feasibility of Kernza® and see if we can have an opportunity to maybe fit that into some form of a perennial cropping system on the farm.

Drew Lyon: Okay. For our listeners who might not know what Kernza® is, can you tell us what that is?

Aaron Esser: Didn’t Garrett talk about that on one of your podcasts? You may have to go reference it. He just asked me if we could put Kernza® on the ground and I said absolutely. It’s very similar, it’s a small grain that they’re using for flour in a lot of instances or even in beverages, alcoholic beverages, as well. And I think from what I’ve read with it is they take that flour and blended with wheat flour to make to make a flour and stuff. And it’s also a perennial crop.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, I think that’s the big change.

Aaron Esser: The big change is, you know, trying to figure out how to get a perennial into a cropping system around here.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. And you know, from a weed management standpoint being able to move a perennial crop in and out of a rotation, that can be very beneficial because the weeds in perennials systems tend to be different than the weeds in annual systems.

Aaron Esser: And that’s one of the reasons when he asked me about putting the trial out there, I said, absolutely, let’s put it right here. And it’s a three-year or a five-year commitment to put it on the farm.

And the other one, you know, Isaac Madsen, he’s talked on your podcast about peaola. We’ve had and hosted one of his peaola trials on the farm. You know, and that’s another one kind of swinging for the fences.

When I go back though and just look at trials and research this year, I always kind of look at that one thing that really caught my eye. And Ian Burke has a large study with compost on the farm. He had some extra compost, so I put out some small plots with compost and without compost and when I harvested them this year–it was in recrop winter wheat–where we had no compost it was a little over 50 bushel an acre. Where we put the compost on the ground, a couple of years ago that wheat was a little over 70 bushels. We saw a significant increase in yield and it really just showed, you know, what our yield potential can be if we can do some different things with soil and soil health and maybe moving the needle more in that way.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Do you know what kind of compost it was?

Aaron Esser: It’s the stuff from Barr-Tech. I’ll throw him a plug.

And so that’s one of the things I want to look at a little bit more and almost work it backwards and find out what happened. We did nothing else different with the ground. Looking at my numbers, I don’t think it’s nitrogen related. It may be some other nutrients related and that gives us something to dig into and find out. But it’s pretty exciting to see what type of yield potential we actually have out there.

Drew Lyon: All right. So, what about this coming year? Anything new happening at the Wilke Farm?

Aaron Esser: I’m going to run through a little bit on the larger plots first. You know, those I talked about the small plots–we also have six large scale plots that have continued. These are multiyear studies and we have those. And then one of them that sticks out we establish in 2014 is the value of incorporating spring canola, chickpeas in a cereal grain rotation.

And the treatments are we use chickpeas, we’ve been using billy beans, we use spring Roundup Ready canola, and then we have spring wheat–and then we seed recrop winter wheat over the top of that. Then we seed it to spring wheat the following year, and then the fourth year we come back and put chickpeas back on chickpeas, canola back on canola, spring wheat back on spring wheat. And we’re continuing that.

We’ve gone through two full cycles and we’re starting the third cycle on it. And it’s kind of interesting when you start looking at it, you know, overall chickpeas have been favorable. Yield wise, there’s not much difference between canola and chickpeas. The recrop winter wheat following chickpeas will do better. Following wheat, it’s always significantly the least amount.

And then when you break it down, it really comes down to the price differential between canola and chickpeas. And that’s one of the things I really want to do with this work is develop that matrix. So if chickpeas are $0.28 a pound, the billy beans are $0.28 a pound, what type of canola contract or price do you need to be equal to or significantly better than chickpeas?

One of the things that has been unique with it is, you know, I still like the weed control aspects with the canola over the chickpeas. And so that’s been one of the things, even though economically chickpeas have been a little bit better, but they also provide a little bit more headache on the weed control side of things.

Drew Lyon: All right. So, 2023, anything new coming?

Aaron Esser: Yes, you know, on the farm, on the large rotation, there’s not a lot. But research wise, we have two large projects that are starting up on the farm.

We’re working with the cropping systems in Extension portion of the USDA-ARS Pacific Northwest Herbicide Resistance Initiative. So I’m happy to get started on that and moving forward with that, and working with Ian Burke and his team and, and yourself on that.

And then we’re also doing the Washington State Soil Health Initiative. The Wilke Farm was selected as one of the LTARE sites–I think it’s long-term agroecology/ecological research and extension site with Dr. Haly Neely and we are bringing on Shika Singh to work on soil health issues on the on the farm. So I’m really excited to see where that’s going to go.

We’re even looking at cover crops and grazing cover crops as one of these, you know, potential swinging for the fences into the future.

Drew Lyon: All right. So, some interesting new things getting started and… [laughter]

Aaron Esser: Scary things, Drew. I said cows or livestock. Yes.

Drew Lyon: Yes. That that adds a new level of challenge to your operations.

Aaron Esser: Absolutely. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens. You know, and I call it truly swinging for the fences. Do I think what we’re going to roll out is what a farmer might roll out? I highly doubt it. But maybe we can find something that, you know, down the line will be feasible for growers across the region.

Drew Lyon: All right. Yeah, I’ll be very interested to see how that that works out.

So how can listeners get more information about the Wilke Research and Extension Farm? Is there a place they can go to the read about what you’re doing?

Aaron Esser: Most of the stuff that’s pertinent to the farm I do keep on the Small Grains website. I publish the results—agronomic and economic productivity—from the farm every year. I run it through a peer-reviewed publication process, and that’s available on the Small Grains website.

We’re having our field day this year on June 29th. That’s a Thursday, June 29th, and that will be a great place to come see what we’re doing, visit with the other growers, visit with the researchers, and maybe provided a little bit of input of what we need to be looking at into the future.

Drew Lyon: All right. Thanks for an update on the Wilke Research and Extension Farm. Aaron, as always, appreciate hearing what’s going on at that site. Let’s have you back again next year to talk about it and what new things you’re learning.

Aaron Esser: Thank you. And hopefully you can keep some lemonade coming along.

Drew Lyon:


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement