Wheat & Cotton Aren’t The Most Profitable Crops In Oklahoma
If you were to drive to every corner in Oklahoma, you'd likely be amazed at how diverse the agriculture is around the state.
In Northwest Oklahoma, the most common traditional crop you'll find is wheat. In fact, it's probably the most common crop you'll find throughout all of Oklahoma. But in the Northwest country, you'll also find canola, oats, milo, and rye. The small portion of Oklahoma within the Great Plains, with loamy sandy soil, makes it ideal for growing grains... but grains aren't the big cash crop in this state.
As you go east pretty much anywhere north of I-40, you'll see a shocking amount of corn. Historically it's a crop that is found in the snow states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota, it somehow found a home in Oklahoma. To say it's a Northeastern Oklahoma thing doesn't mean it's not found in other places... it grows in and around Chickasha too... but it's most common in that quarter of the state. It's also common to see soybeans, milo, and wheat in those hilly fields too.
While everyone assumes Southeast Oklahoma plants and harvests things crops like meth, it's actually where a lot of Oklahoma's grown foods come from. Greenhouse products are more popular south of I-40 and east of I-35 than anywhere else in the state. Still, wheat is a big crop down there... but not the cash king in Oklahoma.
Finally, we dip to Southwest Oklahoma where wheat and cotton are kings. It's our sandy soils that make for good cotton soil, if we get the rain needed to grow it waste-high. The further west you go down Highway 62, the more common it is to see irrigation. The farms that stretch from south of Altus up to Lone Wolf use the water from Lake Lugert to water the cotton during the brutal summer. That's why the lake is always by the time Labor Day rolls around. Away from the canal system, it's common to see pivot groundwater irrigation systems.
Grains like milo aren't considered rare in SWOK, but they're certainly not common. We also produce peanuts, wheat, and pecans in this part of the state... but they aren't the top cash crop either.
So if it's not the subsidized corn or the big fluffy cotton or wheat, what is Oklahoma's biggest cash crop?
Hay is the biggest moneymaker in Oklahoma. It's not really surprising either seeing what farmers pay for it during times of drought. A bale that normally costs $30 in a "good" year might go for $95 in a dry year.
If you're curious what it is, hay is just about anything. Farmers that had a really bad wheat year will often bale their crops vs threshing it. Corn and milo farmers will do the same after their harvest with all the residual stalks and stuff leftover. Wild grasses, bermuda and fescue, even the tall johnson grasses you see along the highways will get baled if times are looking tough.
It wasn't that long ago, just a few years that ranchers were auctioning off their herds and shipping them off to the northern cattle lots in Nebraska and the Dakotas because there wasn't enough rain to keep them fed in the pastures. It was cheaper to wholesale the beef rather than pay for the pricey haylage to keep them fed.
As 2021 dried out, the price of hay just kept going up. Now that we've had a few falls of snow that provide deep moisture in melting runoff, perhaps ranching will see a return to the good times in 2022.
Of course, it's hard to just say hay is the #1 most valuable crop in Oklahoma without a little latitude. Every year is different. In most years, wheat is generally the cash crop in Oklahoma... but it depends on the drought status, the spring storm season, how windy it gets, how much hail the clouds drop, etc... It's the worst wheat years that end up the best hay years. The most recent data listed hay as the crop king, and in only a matter of time, wheat will likely retake that crown.