Should you bale your straw?

By Chris Zoller, Extension educator (ANR in Tuscarawas County); Brian Roe, AEDE Extension specialist and Bruce Clevenger, Extension educator (ANR, Defiance County)

Wheat straw is in high demand across all of Ohio for a variety of reasons, including fewer acres devoted to wheat production, its use in reclamation of gas and oil well drilling sites, and fields being planted to soybeans following wheat harvest without the straw being baled. Reports of higher than normal prices per bale are found across the state. The Farmerstown, Ohio, Auction on May 15 reported large square bales of straw selling for $165 per ton and small square bales bringing $180 per ton, while per-ton prices over the past two months have averaged $167 in central Pennsylvania and $140 in central Illinois. Further analysis of the central Pennsylvania auction prices reveals that these strong prices for straw have persisted for the past two years and are significantly higher than 2010 prices.

Obviously, supply and demand will continue to drive the price of straw, and prices per bale will probably decline at some point, but there may be an opportunity for farmers to plant more acres to wheat to meet the demand. If you have wheat this year and had not planned to bale the straw, this may be the year to do so. It’s important to do some homework before jumping into this venture and we encourage farmers to evaluate the pros and cons of growing wheat, baling the straw, and completing an assessment of the potential market for baled straw.

Economics

Barry Ward, OSU Extension farm management specialist, has prepared crop budgets that allow growers to input values to reflect changes in production and expenses. The 2012 wheat budget divides the receipts from the grain and straw separately to allow growers the opportunity to evaluate the economics of both. The straw-only budget reflects receipts at $100 per ton, with total variable and fixed costs of almost $55 per acre, resulting in a return above total costs of just over $43 per acre.

What is the value of the nutrients being removed when straw is baled? This is an important question to ask when deciding whether to leave the straw in the field or bale it for sale at a later time. In mid-May, Potash (0-0-60) cost $645 per ton and DAP (18-46-0) was priced at $672 per ton. A good wheat crop will yield between 1 and 1.2 tons of straw per acre on a dry matter basis. A ton of wheat straw contains between 9 and 14 pounds of nitrogen, 3 to 5 pounds of P2O5, and 15 to 35 pounds of K2O.

The straw harvesting equipment determines whether the straw will be in small square bales, big square bales, or large round bales. This may affect the cost of straw harvest, handling, storage and transport. Furthermore, there exist significant price differences by the type of bale. In recent trading in central Illinois, small square bales brought $130 to $150 per ton, big square bales brought $110 to $125 per ton while large round bales brought $70 to $90 per ton. Careful consideration should be given to your cost differences for producing different types of bales and prevailing price differences by bale type. USDA reports straw prices as part of many of its reports on hay markets and can provide a basis for choosing the method of straw harvesting for those who have flexibility on bale type production.

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