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Here are considerations when harvesting short wheat
Stacy Campbell
Stacy Campbell

In many areas of Kansas, prolonged drought has resulted in short wheat and thin stands. Harvesting wheat in these situations can be a challenge. Special attention needs to be given to cutting height, machine adjustments, and operator control. In short wheat, getting the heads into the combine with less straw will be a challenge. In some cases, the reel may not be able to effectively convey the wheat back from the cutter bar to the auger, nor hold it in place during cutting. Short cutting will also mean more contact potential with the ground and reduced levels of surface residue which will likely negatively impact cropping systems in water-limited environments.

In the case of material conveyance, stripper headers, air reels, and draper headers may be a great help. The information in this article has been condensed considerably, for the full article go to our web site at 

Stripper headers - stripper headers allow the grain to be harvested efficiently while leaving the maximum amount of standing residue in the field. Research has shown that this preservation of wheat residue can reduce evaporative losses of water after harvest, aid in the moisture retention of snow, and improve the yields of next year’s crop.

Air reels - air reels will also aid in the material conveyance from the cutter bar to the auger in reel-type units when crops are light or thin. These units are made in several different types including finger air reels, non-reel, and units that fit over existing reels. Examples of manufacturers are Crary (West Fargo, ND) and AWS (Mitchell, Ontario Canada). 

Draper headers and flex heads - draper headers may help with the conveyance of material since they have a very short distance between the cutterbar the conveyance belt. The ability to tip the cutterbar completely back will aid in keeping harvested crop material moving across the cutter bar and onto the belt as well as ensuring some stubble remains standing on the soil surface. 

Flex heads will also help deal with the lower cutting heights and potential ground strikes. In thin stands of wheat it is even more important that sickles and guards are in good condition as there is less crop material pushing into the cutting area, which would normally help ensure cutting by worn sickles and guards. 

If harvesting with a draper or flex header, maintain the cutting height as high as possible to preserve standing stubble. Typically, cutting wheat at two-thirds of its full height will result in losses of less than 0.5 percent as any missed heads contain light weight grain that will be lost as tailings during the harvesting process.

Conventional headers - for many farmers, new equipment may not be an economical choice and you may have to make do with a conventional head on your combine. In this case, adjust the reel to get the best movement of the heads from the cutter bar to the auger. 

Combine adjustments - in addition to material conveyance and cutting height, lower yields and uneven crop flow may also require performing combine adjustments to the concave/rotor cage clearance, cylinder/rotor speed, and fan speed. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. 

Summary -although this will be a rough wheat harvest for many farmers, some changes can be made to help maximize harvest efficiencies. If you have ever wanted to try an alternate header (stripper, flex-draper, etc.), this may be the year for you. For those not wanting to buy, renting may also be a viable option.

Producers in dryland production systems need to keep in mind that in very low-yielding wheat years, anything that can be done to preserve what little crop residue is present will have large impacts on evaporative losses and productivity of the next crop.

Information provided by Lucas Haag, NW Area Crops specialist and Ajay Sharda, Extension Agricultural Engineer. 

Stacy Campbell is an Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for Cottonwood Extension District. Email him at or call the Hays office, 785-628-9430.