J.C. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

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January 6, 2014
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John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 1-6-14

We went out for dinner on Christmas Eve with some friends at a nice restaurant. Seated at the table next to us was a family of six. At the head of this adjoining table sat the father, a man I suspected might be a farmer, given his broad shoulders, white forehead, and western plaid shirt. The children, two boys and two girls were well behaved, saying “sir” and “ma’me,” and “please” and “thank you” — unusual enough these days that a person tends to notice.

When the server brought our respective tables a complimentary basket of bread and butter, the man said, “Would you please grind up some fresh gluten on my bread?” He then laughed, as the server gave him a quizzical look, and his wife admonished him for being ornery, something it seemed like he was inclined to be on more than one occasion.

I happened to be seated in such a position that I could lean over and speak to the man without being rudely obtrusive, so I told him that I’d had the same thought several times, mostly because I was curious about what happened to all the gluten that was being taken out of wheat products these days.

“That’s been my exact wonderment,” the man said. “They’re taking out so much gluten, a person would think they’d have barrels of it somewhere. I been thinking it oughta be good feed, if it’s around and not too pricey.”

That’s when I knew he was in agriculture, and we then had a conversation about markets, government, and the usual topics farmers have to talk about while their wives hope that at some point they will become interested.

I have always enjoyed growing wheat. When farming north of Fort Collins winter wheat was a good rotational crop after pinto beans, planting the wheat right in the bean stubble in late September or early October. The wheat was in the boot early the next spring to take advantage of “penalty water” from North Poudre’s irrigation system. The wheat harvest fell between first and second cuttings of alfalfa in July, and enough volunteer grew to make it good for fall aftermath grazing, and rotation the following year into sugar beets.

In the San Luis Valley, I started growing winter wheat in 1991, when few others were doing it. In the Valley, the spring winds make it very dicey to get a small grain crop going if you miss a favorable stretch of weather because from late March through early June, wicked winds always blow that tend to burn and stunt a spring-planted crop. But winter wheat is well established when the winds come, and thus it stands up and bushels out much better. Also, winter wheat reaches peak water demand around the time the surface water streams are at their peak flow in early June.

The only problem: if winter wheat gets too much growth during a warm spell in the early spring, it can be damaged by a frost in early June, which is common in the Valley. The solution is to graze the wheat back with cattle or sheep, or goats, which increases tillering and yield, but requires additional nitrogen fertilizer, because the grazing tends to remove it.

One of the reasons I really like growing winter wheat is that in Colorado it’s the first crop to green up the ground after a long winter of staring at brown dirt, and that green carpet of crop brings optimism for the coming year. ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Jan 3, 2014 08:12AM Published Jan 20, 2014 11:01AM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.