WASHINGTON — A research project just underway aims to prove properly managed wheat of specific varieties can simultaneously be high yielding, high quality and be highly profitable for the grower.
The project will unfold over the next three years under the auspices of the Wheat Action Plan, created collaboratively by the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), the National Wheat Foundation and key partners from several segments of the wheat industry. The group conceived the project during a January industry roundtable held to define priority activities that build on existing programs such as the National Wheat Yield Contest, Wheat 105 and a nutrition through wheat program.
“Historically a lot of people have said high yield doesn’t equate to high quality, and farmers have been paid on yield, bushels rather than quality,” said David Cleavinger, chairman of the foundation. “We’re trying to show there are ways to have both, and hopefully over time we can change the perception.”
The first phase of the project will study wheat production using intense agronomic practices, and whether high yielding wheat can also be high-quality wheat. The project mainly involves the collection and compilation of data on return on input investments for wheat crops. Much of that data already has been collected. A research intern will be tasked with contacting land grant universities, farm management programs and independent companies to gather information for the largest wheat growing areas in the country. Gaps in the data from outside sources will be supplemented by input data from past wheat yield contest participants.
The Washington-based National Wheat Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was incorporated July 6, 1977, to “advance wheat science; to advance conservation of natural resources; to develop new uses and new markets for US wheat; and to develop educational programs to promote wheat and its allied industries,” the foundation’s website says. Today farmers, millers, bakers and agribusiness company representatives comprise a nine-member board of directors that governs the foundation, which is managed by staff of NAWG, the foundation’s sole member.
The foundation board expects to see the results of the data project at the end of the summer. If the project provides evidence that certain wheat varieties under mindful management can produce high quality wheat in high-yielding volume, the foundation plans to spread the word to growers by building on projects such as the wheat yield contest.
“Through the National Wheat Yield Contest, we have found there are early adopters of ideas and technology that participate,” said Mr. Cleavinger, a past president of NAWG who also serves on the Agriculture Advisory Board of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. “And farmers are notorious for going to the coffee shop, talking to neighbors to see what works. In this contest, we have had participants say they’ve tried specific inputs or management techniques on a small plot, and it worked, so they spread the methods across their entire farm.
“We will take a look at quality parameters for future wheat yield contests, and with these projects going at the same time, we can also say ‘see, these are the results we have achieved, and these methods will help producers be more successful.”
The foundation and its partners clearly aim to make wheat a more profitable crop for producers. Poor returns on investments have led to decreasing wheat acres for many years as farmers turn to more lucrative commodities. In US Department of Agriculture all-wheat harvested acres records dating back to 1866 (when 15.4 million acres were harvested), the United States saw peaks at 75.9 million acres in 1950 and a record-high 80.6 million acres in 1981. By 2020, all-wheat harvested acres had declined 43.2 million acres, or 54%, from the 1980 record to 37.39 million acres. Planted area peaked in 1981, at 88.3 million acres. In 2020, all-wheat planted acres were half of the 1980 record at 44.4 million acres.
The second phase of the project will be conducted over the next three years under the guidance of a task force consisting of growers, millers, researchers, agronomists, the Wheat Quality Council and US Wheat Associates.
Project leaders selected hard red winter as the first wheat class to be studied as a matter of feasibility and practicality.
“A project of this magnitude has to start somewhere, and funding was a factor since the foundation has a set amount of dollars to spend,” Mr. Cleavinger said. “With hard red winter, there already were plots available to tap into to kickstart the project.”
The WQC’s recommended quality targets for hard red winter will be used to measure grain samples taken at harvest from plots of the same variety grown the same way. The test plots are located at Winfield United Answer Plot locations in South Dakota and North Dakota and from Kansas State University plots in Kansas. Input levels will serve as the variable, comparing low inputs that theoretically generate lower yield with high inputs resulting, in theory, in higher yields. Samples will be taken.
Samples collected from replicated plots will be combined into one 6-lb sample for testing at the Portland, Ore., Wheat Marketing Center and at the Wheat Quality Lab in Manhattan, Kan. Quality aspects to be tested are whole kernel moisture, protein, test weight, falling numbers, farinograph results using a 300-gram bowl, flour moisture, and pan-bread pound loaf.
Those supervising the project hope to have the first set of results from the hard red winter study by December. Next year they hope to widen the hard red winter study area to include Oklahoma and begin testing hard red spring wheat plots.
“Over time we plan to go through all the different classes of wheat,” Mr. Cleavinger said. “But what is considered quality in hard red winter is different from hard red spring and soft wheats, so the Pacific Northwest has different quality parameters than we do in the South.”
Mr. Cleavinger is a fifth-generation producer who operates a 3,500-acre irrigated farm and ranch in the Texas panhandle near Wilderado.
The foundation’s project will have about 140 different test plots to choose from, but funding could limit the scope of the research, as lab testing of one sample runs about $250.
“It’s a learning process for all of us,” he said. “We hope it’s the first of many years to come of research that will ultimately push the numbers higher for wheat quality where millers and bakers will see that wheat growers are making choices that will result in more profitability, both from our end and theirs. We look at it as ‘we’re a team.’ This isn’t a competition. What we grow, they use in their end products. If we can get all the farmers in America growing quality wheat, it will increase the profitability for everybody. Millers and bakers are a key part as we go forward with these projects, so we hope they will join in our efforts to make sure they get a quality product in the end, because it takes all of us to make it happen.”