Amber waves again

The National Wheat Foundation is working hard to erase the conception of wheat as “poverty grass.”

“Due to low commodity prices, farmers call wheat poverty grass,” said Steve Joehl, of the wheat foundation. “Other cash crops make more money.”

Because of this, wheat has declined in acres, especially in the Northern Plains. The foundation needs farmers to improve yield, productivity and quality to make up for this loss, Joehl said.

The main effort to change this image has come in the form of the annual National Wheat Yield Contest. The contest drives manageability, Joehl said.

“The objective is to increase productivity,” he said. “You do that by watching costs and improving yield. This will drive revenue.”

The wheat yield contest is relatively new. The first year it was held was 2016. It didn’t start with much fanfare. In fact, there were only 128 entrants.

“I thought: ‘Oh man! This is terrible,’” Joehl said. “Corn has about 8,000 entries.”

But, the word spread since the inaugural year and entries increased accordingly. This year, the contest had 425 competitors. Like wheat, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.

“The yield contest discovered several farmers who are consistent winners,” Joehl said. “All good quality entrants are consistently in the contest. They will lead the rest.”

One of the ways the contest attracts new contenders is by getting farmers to look at how the contest winners bring in massive yields and ask: “How did they do that?”

Joehl said he makes it as easy as possible for farmers to enter the yield contest. He has them answer 10 basic questions. If the farmers make it through to harvest (half do not because of weather events, etc) he goes for more in-depth information.

“After harvest I hit them with a hundred questions. I ask them everything,” he said. “I want them to understand that this is the information they need to be familiar with.”

Once you get them thinking, the farmers realize where they can improve, Joehl said. Farmers are very resourceful people. This contest is driven by the growers; it’s all about creativity, he said.

Participating in the yield challenge gets farmers networking and sharing information. Farmers who have been using the same wheat seed for 10 years hear about new varieties. Then, they want to try them out, and learn the differences in managing the new seed (such as how much nitrogen to apply). Above all, the contest exposes farmers to developments, Joehl said.

“We’ve also learned some things from corn growers,” he said. “Corn farmers are diligent when it comes to crop population.”

In the first years of the contest, when Joehl asked for population counts he was met with ambiguous answers. Over time, he got producers to realize they have to manage it like they would corn, sugar beets or any other cash crop. Once that step was ingrained, he began to work on quality.

“Wheat growers are accountable for quantity but mostly unaware of how to drive quality,” Joehl said. “Wheat is the only major crop that is sold on quality. It is graded for protein and carbohydrates.”

The Federal Grain Inspection Service grades wheat on a scale of one to five. One is best, he said. Anything three or higher (lower-grade) is considered feed quality. According to the USDA, FGIS facilitates the marketing of U.S. grain and related products by establishing standards for quality assessments, regulating handling practices and managing a network of private laboratories that provide official inspection and weighing services.

Each class (hard wheat, etc.) has different parameters, but they all get tested by weight and falling number. The grain gets hammered if it is not of sufficient quality, Joehl said.

Now in its fifth year, the contest has gathered enough data for official studies, he said. Research scientist at universities in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota are working with the wheat board’s facts and figures. They would like to have more universities on board, Joehl said.

“We’ve collected 1,200 data points over four years,” he said. “This data is priceless.”

While the contest is helping producers learn better management techniques, it takes time for the methods to ripple out to the average farmer. According to Joehl, it will take 10 years for the average yield to reach the levels of the yield contest winners. That is what they have seen in corn yield contests, he said. While this may seem a snail’s pace, improvements in genetics and other advances are even slower in coming.

“Wheat research is woefully underfunded,” Joehl said. “We get millions compared to billions for corn.”

He did say that there are four companies which have been investing heavily in wheat genetics. This has helped increase interest in wheat production, Joehl said.

“Nebraskans have been very interested in the yield contest,” he said. “There have been several contestants from Nebraska each year; including a couple of national winners.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.  

Jon Burleson is the Midwest Messenger reporter, based out of eastern Nebraska. Reach him at jon.burleson@lee.net.