Great Plains and Prairies - Agriculture
The agriculture of the Great Plains is large scale and machine intensive, dominated by a few crops, the most important of which is wheat. Winter wheat is planted in the fall. Before the winter dormant season sets in, the wheat stands several centimeters tall. Its major growth comes in the spring and early summer, when precipitation is at a maximum and before the onset of the desiccating winds of summer. It is harvested in late May and June. Today, winter wheat is grown across much of the United States, but its zone of concentration is the southern Plains from northern Texas to southern Nebraska.
Spring wheat--grown primarily from central South Dakota northward into Canada--is planted in early spring and harvested in late summer or fall. It is suited to areas of winters so severe that germinating winter wheat would be killed. Most grasslands wheat is grown using dry farming techniques, without irrigation. The soil is plowed very deeply to break the sod and slow evaporation. Most visually obvious, especially in the northern Plains, is the widespread use of fallowing, where the land is plowed and tilled but not planted for a season to preserve moisture.
Beginning around June 1 with the winter wheat harvest in Texas, custom combining crews gradually follow the harvest northward. Unlike migrant farm laborers harvesting other crops, these people, often in large crews that use many combines and trucks, have traditionally been well-paid agricultural workers. The farms in most of the "Wheat Belt" now exceed 400 hectares, which means that more wheat farmers can now afford their own combines. Still, probably one-third of all Great Plains wheat is harvested by custom combining crews.
A major problem with profitable wheat production is the difficulty of moving the harvest rapidly to storage in the large grain elevators that dot the Plains. Competition from truck hauling and, in parts of the winter wheat region, barge transport has encouraged the railroads to abandon many small country grain elevators in favor of much larger complexes usually in larger towns. Most export wheat moves through the Great Lakes or in barges down the inland waterway system and the Mississippi River.
Sorghum has emerged as a major crop on the southern Plains in recent decades. Able to withstand dry growing conditions, this African grain now equals winter wheat in importance on the hot, dry southwestern margins of the Plains. Both Texas and Nebraska now have more land in sorghum than in wheat. Most of the grain sorghum crop is used as stock feed.
On the northern Plains, barley and oats are major second crops, with most of the continent's barley crop coming from the Lake Agassiz Basin of North Dakota and Minnesota. Nearly all flaxseed produced in North America also is grown in the northern Plains. Sunflowers, a source of the vegetable oil canola and important ingredients in many livestock feeds, are rapidly increasing in importance in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota.
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