Sonora Wheat Harvest

We planted our first crop of wheat mid-November of 2011. After 170 days, it was finally ready for harvest! Wheat is ready once it begins to dry and turns a golden yellow color. You can also check by pressing on a wheat berry with your fingernail, which should dent under the pressure. If it crushes and releases a milky substance then it is not ready for harvest yet.

There are several ways wheat can be harvested. Nowadays, most wheat is gathered using a combine harvester. Combines not only harvest the wheat, they also thresh and winnow it in a single process. Since we had a relatively small plot (15′ x 30′), we had to research how it was done in the past and in countries with limited machinery. We found that most hand harvesting is done with either a sickle or a scythe. Sickles seemed to be used on short wheat, and since ours was approximately 5 feet tall, we thought a scythe might work better. As it turned out, my father just so happened to have a wooden scythe in his garage! We sharpened the blade and gave it a whirl! The scythe cut well, but it sent pieces of wheat flying all over the place. Most scythes used for wheat harvesting have a cradle attached to them that catch the wheat as it is cut, leaving it in a nice pile. Ours did not so to expedite the harvest, we resorted to using a weed wacker. One person gathered up a bunch of wheat and held it together while another person cut the bottom of the stalks until it could be lifted away.

This worked out great as you can see from our time lapse video below.

Next, we tied the wheat into bundles and stood them outside to dry (covering the tops with sheets so the birds couldn’t eat the scrumtrulescent berries). After a week, the wheat berries were hard and could not be dented, meaning it was time to start threshing.

Threshing involves separating the edible grain from the stalks. This was by far the most time consuming and labor intensive part of the harvest. We found many techniques that people used in the past to thresh wheat. Some people layed the wheat on a blanket and stomped on it with rubber shoes. Others used large barrels and bashed the wheat heads on the inside to release the berries. We tried both techniques with a little variation. We purchased large rubber buckets from the hardware store and banged the wheat heads on the inside. This did work well, but it was not enough force to release all the berries from the heads. So we tried the stomping method, except instead of shoes we used a rubber mallet. We layed the heads out on a blanket and struck them with the mallet. This worked very well and did not crush the wheat berries. After many hours, we were finally ready for winnowing.

Winnowing involves removing the chaff and other debris from the berries. The chaff is much lighter than the berries so the easiest way to remove it is by using gravity and forced air from a fan (a gusty day works too!). By pouring the wheat/chaff mixture in front of a fan from one bucket to another, the light chaff is separated from the grain. We had to do this many times before the wheat was almost clean. The remaining pieces of debris were removed by hand.

After all that work, we finally had our wheat! We stored our grain in thoroughly clean/dry glass canning jars. Overall, we planted ½ pound of seed and ended up with 25 pounds of grain. We were pleasantly surprised by this figure and can now enjoy the fruits of our labor. Here are a few delicious recipes we have already tried:

Next year, we’ll try to build a human powered machine to speed up the threshing process and also make some screen filters for separating the grain during winnowing.

  • Tom Bergstrand

    I notice that you planted 1/2 pound of seed and harvested 25 pounds. Great return. Now a question: Can the seeds that you gleaned by threshing also be planted and harvested later? I am looking very seriously into building a barley fodder system and am concerned if the supply of seed is stopped or interrupted due to economic conditions at some later date. Planting my own seems to be a totally smart alternative. Actually wheat would probably suffice depending on the yield. The end result is for rabbit feed. My math says that you harvested one pound of finished seeds per 18 square foot of planting and your results were 50 times that which you planted. (1/2 pound of seed for 25 pounds of seed). I like that return. As I look into fodder systems they return 8 to one but much of it is water. The recommended ration is doubled in that case. So a normal 4 oz. portion is now 8 oz. Extending that math means that from 1/2 a pound of seed I will get 25 pounds. That translates to 200 pounds of feed for the rabbits. With the doubling factor for water content 1/2 pound of seed will be the equivalent of 2 – 50 pound bags of pellets. BTW, I WILL be building the bucket thrasher that you show in a later video. It’s AMAZING! Thank you.
    TOM in Kingman

  • Tom, thanks for visiting our page. Your math is right, and I appreciate you posting the calculations.

    As it turns out, your reply couldn’t be timed any better. 😉 I started processing our 3rd crop of wheat today, and the bucket thresher really does make all the difference. We planted a 24′ x 24′ area this year, and I finished threshing all of it in less than an hour. Once the seed is winnowed this week, I’ll write back with the yield weight.

    Yes, you can save the seed from last year’s harvest and sow it next year. That’s exactly what we do, and it’s very sustainable. The grain is ground on demand to maximize shelf life.

    The great thing about Sonora wheat is it does not require much water to grow. It is extremely heat tolerant so it would work well in your application. Our chickens love helping us clean up any of the grain that falls on the ground so I can imagine your rabbits might like it too. Can the rabbits live on grain alone? I imagine there must be something else in the pelleted feed.

    Thanks again for writing us.

  • Tom Bergstrand

    Just a quick note. I’m sure that the rabbits “need” other stuff contained in pellets BUT if there is a problem in the economy and pellets cannot be gotten this wheat idea will go a long way towards keeping them going. I am going to look for any information as to what other things can be planted to supply the other things that they need. Thank you for your reply.
    TOM in Kingman

  • Tom, I felt ambitious and decided to winnow the wheat today. After jarring and weighing, the net total was 25.3 lbs. Despite the larger planting area mentioned above, the important figure is how much was sown. We planted 0.5 lb of seed this year which is a 50X return. Also, as the grain is drying in the sun, you will lose some to hungry birds which is why we cover our sheafs with light blankets to keep them away. Good luck with your rabbit feed!

  • Tom Bergstrand

    Another question if I might. I noticed that the harvested stalks were, as you stated about 5 feet tall. The video I saw of your “bucket method” of thrashing showed somewhat smaller (shorter) pieces in the bucket. Do you cut the top section off so as to speed up the thrashing process? It just looks like the long “stem” really serves no purpose save it’s use as a compost material, crop covering in winter or some kind of feed supplement. Thank you.
    TOM in Kingman

  • Tom, we break the wheat heads off of the stalks one by one to pre-process it before threshing (it makes it easier on the drill, less chance to bind up). We do save the stalks and use them for deep mulch weed control in the garden. The material can also be used as straw or composted so it’s really up to you.

  • sinosoul

    Thanks for this piece. It sounds like a crap ton of work for us city folks with some land open. The weed wacker idea is great though. I’ll be sure to let the gardener know when he can cut the wheat.

  • It is a considerable amount of work, but thankfully it’s only for a day or two. Sustaining the wheat with sunshine and a sprinkler is very easy. 😉