Hi, everyone. I'm trying to solve a problem I'm running up against. I have a large patch of wheat this year and am unsure of exactly when to harvest. Gene Logsdon's book on grains says it's ready to harvest when the kernels are crunchy (mine aren't yet, but are getting crunchier daily), or when the stalks are mostly gold with just a little green left (which mine are).
The question is, is it better to harvest a little too early than too late? I'm going to be doing this manually, so I'm worried about shatter when I'm scything the grain. I'm planning to leave the wheat in shocks in the field for a few weeks, so this should ripen them, right?
The wheat is mostly golden with a little green left around the grain. The edges of the patch are still somewhat green, but the overwhelming majority is getting really ripe looking.
If anyone has any experience on this, I would love to hear about it. I'll put a picture of what it all looks like below. Thanks for any help you can offer me!
Hi Ben, welcome to Permies! I haven't harvested wheat before so my opinion is nearly useless. But, despite that, I'd harvest it. Especially if there's any chance of strong weather in the next week. I figure it will keep on drying in the shocks and it looks pretty dry already. But that's just my two cents (and that's about all it's worth).
If you harvest early remember you need to shock it. I don't how you dry your wheat but if it molds it causes all kinds health problems consumed. I harvested amaranth last year and dried it in my attic but ended up with less than a gallon when I was done.
I typically harvest and thresh on the same day. My strategy is to harvest about the time that the heads start to shatter, or before heavy rains are expected. I irrigate standing grains by sprinkle irrigation, so I may also choose to harvest just before irrigating. The time between when the grain is dry in the field, and I harvest it, may be as long as 3 to 4 weeks. Some collaborators report problems with predation by birds, but I don't have that issue in my fields.
I don't stook grains, so I can't offer advice. Sometimes, if a grain is not quite dry before I harvest, I may harvest it, and lay it on tarps for several days to finish drying.
I like to grow grains that are waist high at maturity. It makes harvesting easy. I sweep my hand through the patch, gathering about 20 heads. Cut them off with secateurs, and throw them on a threshing tarp. I leave the straw standing in the field. Of course I do this while daydreaming about scythes.
First question you asked was about early or late harvesting, I tend to go with late because that gives the kernels more time to harden up (out of the milk stage) which will make a better flour product.
If you need to dry the grain it should be spread on screens if possible, that way air can flow all around the kernel and prevent any molds from growing.
If you are going to store this grain for a long period, the flour beetle eggs will survive 30 f for around 30 days continuous temperature, so bag the dried grain and toss it in a freezer for at least a month.
Hand harvesting is awesome since you can cut only those heads that are at their peak for harvest right then, but if you need to do a complete harvest at one cutting then try for when the heads break like Joseph brought up.
Thresh asap, then dry the grains down (perfect moisture levels are around 5%), most grain at harvest has a moisture content of around 15%, it is then dried and stored (commercial outfits take grain in at 15% and dry it to 5% then bin it until they load it on a barge for shipment to a flour mill).
I've done a lot of reading on this because I grow heritage wheat and barley.
Traditionally small grains were harvested early - shortly after the dough stage, and they are left standing to cure. This probably has to do with the time it traditionally takes to harvest a crop (weeks), and also the ease with which the scythe cuts through the stem.
With modern combines, the grain is harvested much later, when the grain is fully cured, and they typically spray the crop with herbicide to ensure an even die off.
I typically harvest based on the weather. When I know a sustained period of wet weather is likely on the way, then I will harvest early, and cure the grain either indoors or in some sheltered location. I have done this as early as the late dough stag where the seeds are still a little soft, and the stalk is turning from green to brown and I have not noticed a drop in seed viability. That said, under those conditions I collected the harvest into sheafs, and hung them upside down to cure completely before threshing.
Regardless of when I harvest, I always let the sheafs stand until they are completely cured off before I thresh them. My challenge around here isn't insects but mold as we get fall rains and damp cold weather.
I noticed too that there is a difference in straw quality which might also influence processing timing. The old heritage varieties have strong, stiff straw that keeps its structural integrity. The more modern ones I've experienced have a straw that tends to fall apart in comparison. It's going to influence how long you can leave the heads on the straw before you start losing your harvest to shattering.
Edit: Oh, to answer the OP yes I'd harvest that and get it out of the weather unless you know you have a dry spell for a few more weeks.
Thanks for the responses! I should probably clarify one or two things. Part of the reason why I want to cut sooner than later is availability of help- most of the people I can convince to come work are only free on weekends, so there's a time factor that way, too. The other is that I'm expecting to have to shock the wheat. I grew quite a bit (6,000 sq ft, or about 1/6 of an acre) and that isn't feasible to screen dry or keep under a roof somewhere. Field drying is pretty much my only option until I can thresh it all.
It's supposed to be rainy this weekend, but be warm and sunny the whole week after it. I'm planning to cut Sunday. Would that potentially cause mold issues or should it dry out well enough? Naturally it wants to rain this weekend- no rain for over a month, and then the one weekend I need it to be dry...
My plan is to thresh in a week or two after it's had plenty of time to dry. Partly to allow it to dry, and also to give me time to either get a hand threshing machine up and running, or get used to the idea of threshing that much wheat with a flail. :D
Thanks for asking; I've been meaning to write a followup post here to share my experiences.
To start off with, the weekend after I posted it rained non-stop for 3 days here, and there was mold on my wheat. Upon researching, it was the variety known as Sooty Black Mold, which in almost all cases is both superficial and unavoidable, especially with the high rain and humidity we've had in the area this year. While it was startling to see mold on 60% of my crop, 2 days after the rain stopped it had all cleared up and there was no visible damage to the wheat grains themselves.
I should have threshed earlier, as I lost a some wheat to shattering and my own improper use of a scythe. Practical experience with tools and equipment is the best way to learn and towards the end of the patch I had a good technique down. The grain was fully dry within a few days of being in a shock; it was between 5 and 10% moisture, which is perfect for storage.
Here's where things go bad: while threshing, I noticed that 1-2% of my grains were pink or white and a little fuzzy. I was unable to winnow these grains out using a box fan set on high, also. Turns out this is the result of a disease known as Fusarium Head Blight. This stuff does damage grains, and can produce a toxin that is harmful to humans and livestock in pretty small quantities. The maximum limit set by (I believe?) the USDA or FDA is one part per million. This disease is spread by planting in infected soils, contact with infected plant material left in a field, and probably the fact that mold and fungus spores are everywhere at all times.
I contacted the state extension service but have not received a reply on what I can do about this. From my own research, and the fact that I am personally sensitive to mold, I have decided to stop processing the crop and call it a failure. It isn't worth risking my health or well-being for 100 pounds of wheat, at best.
I did learn that both Fusarium Head Blight and Black Sooty Mold are also caused by high rain or humidity during the heading stage of the wheat; in this case, June, when we got something like 7" of rain in a few weeks. Perfect breeding ground for such problems, especially as I did not spray with fungicide or any other treatment.
One other symptom of Fusarium blight that I noticed was that it causes infected plants to turn gold and die a lot sooner than the rest of the plants. I didn't know that's what it was at the time, but if you grow wheat and see heads dying very early, that could be a warning sign for you.
If anyone knows any good ways of removing the infected grains, let me know. I know there are tests you can get done to the grain, but I'm also nearing the limits of how much I can spend on this project this year. The good news is that I'm more prepared for next year, as everything that I had control over was successful.
Winter wheat should be mature or at least halfway through by the Summer solstice in late June(NH).
Here, we get monsoon rains after that which spoil the crop so I harvest it as soon as the heads are golden and we’ve had a couple rainless days and I hang the spikes upside down outside under cover to dry.
Less mature plants still in the milk stage by that time get murdered by birds.
This year I lost nearly all of the awnless plants to birds so it will be mostly awned winter wheat next year.
This is why timing your planting is so critical. Here I plant as soon as possible, often when there is only 6 inches of thawed ground so that I harvest my spring wheat and barley during the dry part of summer.
Without having access to one of the air puff separating machines that the big grain outfits use your only way to get rid of the Fusarium head blight infected kernels is by hand picking.
The two diseases you mentioned are problematic in all parts of the country that experience high humidity and heat, the other main infection wheat gets is ergot, this transforms the kernel into a purple misshapen lump.
High heat will also kill the germ of the wheat which is another form of damage, this one makes the flour not rise once processed.
In the south we plant winter wheat at the end of September through mid October and the harvest comes off by the middle of July, an August harvesting is considered very late and usually has the issues you encountered.