Cover story: The new wheats

A surge of private investment dollars in wheat breeding and genetic research aims to advance the small grains cause.

Turn back the clock to 1976 and Minnesota farmers planted 3.880 million acres of spring wheat.

Last year that acreage had shrunk to 1.665 million. Winter wheat last year slimmed down to only 65,000 acres. In 1935 Minnesota farmers planted 2.380 million acres of barley. Last year barley claimed only about 85,000 acres. The record year for oats in Minnesota was 1945 when 5.466 million acres were planted. Last year oat acreage was 260,000.

Obviously, the cereal grains are slumping in Minnesota, now down to a projected 2.025 million acres for 2011. It’s not just Minnesota that’s slumping. Even Kansas, the perennial powerhouse in wheat production, has lost over 1 million wheat acres the past three years. In 2008 Kansas farmers cut through 9.6 million acres of wheat. Last year the figure was 8.4 million acres.

What’s happening? Basically it’s the explosion of corn and soybean acres into much of the western wheat belt. This is especially so in the key wheat country of northwest Minnesota said Ben Lang, president and CEO of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association.

The corn-soybean boom is happening because of new genetics and disease resistance trait packages that simply make these row crops work that much better than small grains. Granted more competitive commodity prices are also adding to the luster of corn and soybeans.

“At one time wheat was a common crop in virtually every county in Minnesota, grown for both grain and straw,” Lang said. He mentioned fusarium head blight as a major disease that severely cut into the yields and quality of both wheat and barley. “These diseases triggered the shift to corn and soybeans. About that time new soybean varieties that worked well in the Red River Valley came along. Farmers liked the results with these new crops and haven’t yet shifted back to wheat.”

He points out this was also the transition into Roundup Ready traits for both soybeans and corn, and growers quickly adapted that technology. Because of these things happening wheat has a real battle for acres, Lang said.

Don’t count wheat out

For farmers running into a resistance weed issue with RR soybeans and corn, wheat is a great rotation crop. Also Lang points out that in the past couple of years there has been a surge of private investors into wheat breeding. Once the virtual domain of university researchers and a few independent seed companies, Lang said interest triggered greatly when Monsanto bought a wheat breeding company called WestBred.

“With that goes the promise and the incentive of major investments into wheat breeding and genetic research related to wheat,” Lang said.

That single move by Monsanto has since triggered a number of other companies to invest in wheat breeding activities.

“This surge of money and research work to improve wheat production will undoubtedly soon result in some exciting new wheat products. At this stage I don’t know specifics about ‘new wheats’ but one trait being talked about is improved drought tolerance. That could have the impact of moving wheat into more arid regions where corn and soybeans don’t do so well,” Lang said.

Syngenta has been in the wheat business for several years and currently runs the largest wheat breeding program in the United States, which also includes the development of hybrid wheat products. AgriPro is the market name for the Syngenta wheat products. He also mentioned Pioneer as being a major player in wheat breeding work but hasn’t as yet had a big presence in the northwest Minnesota wheat region.

Good for the wheat industry and Minnesota wheat growers is the fact that much of this new wheat breeding work being initiated by private money is collaborating with colleges and universities. He mentioned Kansas State University recently announced a major wheat breeding program in cooperation with Monsanto. The University of Nebraska also announced a joint venture with a private company. Virginia Tech is also into a mutual project with a private firm.

“Fortunately there are a lot of these public-private partnerships being developed. Up here in the spring wheat region public varieties still dominate in the marketplace with about a 70 percent market share,” Lang said, pointing out the obvious opportunities for a private company seeking a quick entry into the market.

Oats surprisingly hang on to a fairly steady foothold in Minnesota, mostly due to Minnesota dairy farmers needing lots of bedding straw, and an early nurse crop for their new alfalfa seedings. Plus there is a continual niche market for specialty oats grown for the “oat meal” food industry.

“A farmer at our Jan. 10 annual meeting told me his oat crop last year was his best net income crop. He got great yields, the market price was good, and he got a good price for the straw crop.” Lang makes the point that there are some enterprising growers who find niches that pay off pretty well.

Where’s the top yield?

Are 100-bushel wheat yields now possible? Lang hears of 100-bushel yields, but thinks it’s premature to suggest that as a frequent occurrence. A 100-bushel yield is reality, under ideal conditions, but it might be a few years away to see that across Minnesota.

“These yields happen frequently in western Europe but they don’t have the quality of our Midwest wheats. For wheat to be a more profitable Minnesota crop there has to be continued emphases on premium milling and baking qualities.

“Protein is part of the issue but there are a number of milling and baking qualities that are key to the value of wheat. Milling companies pay particular attention to these baking quality issues. Because of the drier environments of the western Dakotas and Montana, that is generally where the highest scoring spring wheats are sourced. The yield is lower out there but the quality is higher,” Lang said.

He also gives credit to Minnesota wheat growers who in recent years have been producing some significant quality wheats, especially some of the newer varieties being released through testing and research work by the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University researchers.

He mentioned a presentation at the recent annual meeting of MCIA who represented a large baker in the United Kingdom. He told us he now sourced most of his wheat out of Canada and the Upper Midwest because that’s where the best quality wheat is found. “And it’s not just protein values. It’s things that affect how the bread raises, the texture, how the bread itself will stretch so that when you butter it, it doesn’t shred. Those are all linked to characteristics of the wheat variety,” Lang said.

What variety is best?

Choosing a wheat variety is no simple task; Lang suggests choosing several varieties. The reason being that different varieties have different performance depending upon the climate of each particular growing season. Since that is an unpredictable issue when seeding wheat, risks are lessened by using more varieties.

Because 2010 was such an ideal season for seed production, Lang said wheat seed supplies are adequate and the quality is good also. But if a grower has a particular variety in mind for his 2011 wheat crop, it’s good business to buy that seed early and lock-in your source. This helps the seed producers too since they need some lead time to clean and test their seed.

“It’s always a good idea to have a conversation with your seed supplier early, like right now,” Lang said.

Wheat seed is packaged both bulk and bagged. The bulk handlers condition their seed wheat and then put it into hopper-bottom bins which are emptied with a belt conveyor into the grower’s truck, or his wagons. “They’ve completely eliminated handling bags.”

Some private companies like Finish Line Seeds (formerly Ziller Seed) at Bird Island, offer seed in true bulk, tote bags or bagged seed in 50-pound units. They market AgriPro’s Knudson variety.

“Paper bags are still the popular choice with our customers,” said Finish Line Seeds’ Jeff Ziller.

Wheat acres expanding

Even with relatively strong futures prices on 2011 wheat, Ziller doesn’t see any expansion of wheat acres in their trade area.

“We’ve done some year-end bookings but it’s usually slow until February and March. The thing about wheat is that it’s a quick, convenient crop to get seeded ahead of other crops. Right now I’d say these corn and soybean prices have the major attention of our customers. But there always is some market for wheat seed. It spreads out the labor situation for planting and harvesting. Wheat also works great to break up the row-crop rotation. Wheat straw is always a strong market around here also,” he said.

Ziller has Knudson priced at $11.25 per 50-pound bag subject to the usual early pay-volume deductions. Typical seeding rates are in the 120 pounds per acre range depending upon germination and expected stand loss.

The seeding rate is a function of the number of kernels per pound of seed, percent germination of the lot, expected stand loss as a function of seedbed quality and the desired stand. In Minnesota an average optimum stand for hard red spring wheat when planted early is between 28 to 30 plants per square foot or approximately 1.25 million plants per acre.

This number should increase by one to two plants per square foot for every week planting is delayed past the early, optimum seeding date. Expected stand loss, even under good seedbed conditions, is between 10 percent to 20 percent and will increase with poor seedbed or improper seed placement due to poor depth control.

The latest Minnesota Variety Trials Results lists performance date on 28 different varieties and also scores each variety on test weight, protein, baking quality and pre-harvest sprouting. Check at your local Extension office for a copy or log on to www.maes.umn.edu.

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