The drought-stricken spring wheat harvest of 2017 is now a distant memory, as farmers overall reported a decent harvest in 2018. But some did face roadblocks along the way.
Farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and northwest Minnesota had to wait for the late-spring snow to melt and the ground to thaw, as the calendar days for planting slipped away. On top of that, hail hit some of the spring wheat areas that were hit hard by drought last year, affecting some of the acres that were on tap to produce good yields.
In its most recent harvest report on Sept. 7, the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) said that the hard red spring wheat harvest is closing in on completion with mostly dry weather forecast during the last week.
According to the report, average protein content is unchanged from last week at 14.7%, not much higher than the 2017 final of 14.6%. Test weight average is 61.7 pounds per bushel (lbs./bu) compared to last year's final average of 61.6 lbs./bu. Falling number average is over 400 seconds, indicating sound wheat. Average vitreous kernel content (DHV) is 90% to make the average grade of the crop at this time No. 1 Dark Northern Spring (1DNS). "Industry sources report that the crop looks very good with strong yields and high protein," added USW.
In South Dakota, one of the states hit hardest by drought last year, farmers and elevator managers reported mixed results for this harvest.
"We got hail on July 9 on about half our spring wheat acres, and the damage on those acres was 25% to 35%," said Ryan Wagner of Wagner Farms near Roslyn, South Dakota. "On the non-hailed acres, our yields this year were a bit below what we have seen the last four years, but still respectable. I think this was mostly due to the late planting and heat in May and June, but we were pleased with the yields all things considered."
Wagner told me that quality was very good overall and protein ran a bit higher than the past few years, with most of it falling in the mid to upper 14.0%.
"On higher-yielding years, sometimes we struggle to break the 14% mark so it's nice to have some high-pro wheat in the bin," Wagner said. "Test weight has held in there at or above 60 lbs./bu, even though we struggled to get harvest wrapped up due to many later starts because of foggy morning and having to shut down early because of humidity in between the intermittent rain showers. Even when the sun did shine, it seemed like it was always being filtered by smoke and haze from the wildfires, which didn't help, so a lot of the wheat came off at 15% moisture or higher and is now drying in the bin."
Wagner said another big issue with the crop this year was weed control.
"Typically, you can count on an early canopy to help you out, but with most of the crop planted in mid-May followed by the rapid warm up, the wheat wasn't as good at keeping ahead of the weeds like it does most years so there were some weed control issues in the area," he said.
Jerry Cope, who does the grain marketing for Dakota Mill & Grain Inc. in Rapid City, South Dakota, told me that harvest was a "good one" with yields of 30 to 50-plus bushels per acre (bpa). "Acres were up slightly from last year due to a carryover of fields meant for wheat in the rotation, but didn't get planted last fall," he said.
Cope said that the protein average was higher than one year ago at 15%, and test weight was more than adequate at 60-plus lbs./bu, while dockage was well under 1%.
"The spring wheat came off during the tail end of the price rally. Combined with the flip-flop of spring wheat this year at a lower cash price than winter at any given protein, has kept more than normal at home," concluded Cope.
Tim Luken, manager at Oahe Grain, Onida, South Dakota, said: "In the Onida area, spring wheat harvest was not fast and furious; just steady eddy. The quality of the crop was excellent with no issues of any scab. Of course, harvest was much better than last year due to the drought our area had.
"At the end of June, Sully County had two major hail events that consumed about 30% of the county. This event took out a mixed bag of all crops, and it most definitely made a difference on what we took in this year; a lot less than I thought at the beginning. As far as other grading factors go, we averaged 61 lbs./bu test weight and protein average was 15.4%. We did see some light test weight at the tail end of harvest in the 53- to 55-pound range. Harvest on a whole was later than most years. We started with winter wheat harvest on July 9 and ended with spring wheat harvest around the 9th of August; all in all, a week later than average."
Brian Kjesbo, who farms in Wendell, Minnesota, told me that he was pleasantly surprised with the spring wheat harvest. "The combination of a later-than-ideal start and very warm conditions during tillering had us concerned. We planted a U of M variety that matures early and is known for good quality and standability. Our yields were above our farm average with 62 lbs./bu test weight and 14.3% pro."
Kjesbo added: "We were fortunate to finish harvest in early August before the region got into a persistently wet cycle. I'd say over half the wheat in the area ended up fighting tough harvest conditions and some loss of quality."
Nathan Olsonawski of Hallock, Minnesota, said: "Overall, the spring wheat was slightly better than average for yield. Quality was above average with excellent test weight and protein for our area. We did not have any disease issues with the dry summer that we have had."
Tim Dufault, who farms in Crookston, Minnesota, said: "The 2018 wheat harvest in northwest Minnesota and eastern North Dakota was dry. The hard red spring wheat came off with no weather delays. The dry summer weather helped quality but took its toll on the yield.
"This made for excellent quality. Wheat buyers and millers will love this crop. Every bushel we harvested had beautiful dark red color. All test weights were over 60 lbs./bu. Protein varied based on varieties, but region wide looks like it should land between 14.0% to 14.4%. Yields were down from last year region wide and on my farm. I'll average around 70 bpa versus my last year yield of 75 bpa. From what I have heard via area elevators buyers and growers, I think the region will land in the 60-66 bpa. Again, down from last year's crop."
Dufault said he thought a good, soaking rain in July could have put another 5 bpa to 7 bpa on this crop.
"There were some fields with fusarium or head scab showing up," Dufault said. "Bacteria leaf streak was the most pronounced disease affecting this crop. It was region wide. But, it is hard to say how much yield it robbed from this crop."
Cory Tryan, manager of the grain department and logistics at Alton Grain Terminal LLC in Hillsboro, North Dakota, told me that harvest was as expected after the "Memorial Day massacre (temperatures in the mid-90s) and the blow torch during filling (winds and 90s)."
He said the yield in his territory was 65 bpa and verified widely at 40 bpa to 80 bpa, down 10 bpa from their past four-year average of mid to upper 70s.
"Protein ranged from 12.5 to 16.9 and was 14.8% on average, up 0.8 from our past four-year average of 14.0%," Tryan said. "The test weight was 62 lbs./bu, down from usual 63, and our falling numbers were average in the 400+ ranges. There was disease present in fields not managed well, but overall was not an issue. Our vomitoxin was less than 1 ppm (part per million) versus our usual of less than 0.5 ppm and our color (DHV) was good, similar to past years in mid to upper 60s."
Tryan told me that the majority of the wheat went to the farm bin after pre-contracts were delivered and there was very little delivered over that.
Kerry Baldwin of Hope, North Dakota, said that their yield was good, considering the wheat wasn't planted until May 20.
"We were really wet this spring and that caused the late planting," Baldwin said. "Yields were in the low 60s, which I was satisfied with. Protein was in the 13.8% to 14.8% range, and test weight ranged from 60 to 64 lbs./bu. Overall, quality was excellent. We sprayed a fungicide on our wheat so very little disease pressure."
Allan Klain, who farms northwest of Turtle Lake, North Dakota, said: "It was perfect weather for wheat harvest (soybeans not so much), and we harvested all our wheat without a rain on it. Quality was excellent at 61 lbs./bu with protein 15% and higher. Our yield was way better than we expected. I had some fields I was ready to spray out to beans because of emergence issues, but we had timely rains so didn't need to. We had a very small non-economical level of scab, and it did not affect yield or quality. All in all, this was probably my best yielding and quality crop ever. A lesson learned, don't write off a crop early; wheat is resilient."
Allan Rohrich of Rohrich Farms near Zeeland, North Dakota, said: "We had a very quick harvest for the most part. We were able to harvest almost nonstop without rain, so color and test weight are excellent. Yields were 40 bpa to 65 bpa. Test weight was excellent at 60-62 lbs./bu, and protein seems to be a bit higher this year; one variety has 15%-16.5% and the other right around 14%. Our harvest was about what we expected for the year as we were either right at APH (actual production history yield) or just below."
Jeff Kittell, merchandiser for Border Ag and Energy in Russell, North Dakota, told me that the wheat yield surprised everyone. "We should see averages in the 50-plus-bushel range and protein in 14% range and overall a good, clean milling crop."
Keith Brandt, general manager of Plains Grain and Agronomy LLC in Enderlin, said that North Dakota had less than 5% of the wheat harvest left.
"The balance will drag out for the next two weeks," said Brandt. "Our wheat yields are at 55 bpa to 60 bpa, 5 bpa to 7 bpa less than a year ago. The protein average is 14.5% and grade is a #1NS. We have seen some ergot, but we can live with what came to town and blend to 0.05 or lower."
In north-central Montana, Todd LaPlant, elevator manager at EGT LLC in Kintyre Flats, said: "Our draw area averaged 35 bpa, which is around the five-year average for northeastern Montana and near our expectations going into harvest. Our test weight was 60-plus lbs./bu and good protein with no ergot issues in our area."
This area was under a severe drought last summer, with over 65% of the state affected, and many farmers losing thousands of acres of wheat. In addition, Montana experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons on record with over 1 million acres torched throughout the state because of the bone-dry landscape.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: ERGOT
When anyone talks about ergot, a fungus that grows on the seed head of cereal grains and grasses, it's usually in a hushed tone. All buyers will run from any mention of grain that may be infected with it. Ergot is toxic to animals, and all domestic animals are susceptible -- including birds -- but cattle seem to be the most susceptible.
The United States Standards for Wheat labels "ergoty" wheat, containing more than 0.05% of ergot, as "Special Grades and Special Grade Requirements." This means it is not part of the regular wheat grade and is subject to rejection by the buyer. The loss to a farmer and/or a reseller can be costly if a buyer becomes spooked by traces of ergot. Any flour or feed made from ergot-infected cereals, such as wheat, will still be toxic.
The problem with ergot-infected wheat is that the toxicity cannot be reduced by cleaning or through processing. There is a chance that ergot may be cleaned out by using a gravity table, but sometimes the ergot kernel is larger than the wheat kernel, making it difficult to remove.
As I compiled comments for this story from different areas in North and South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, this is what I heard from some farmers and elevators:
-- "I heard there was some ergot in the area, but it was not an issue for us and disease pressure seemed to be minimal this year."
-- "Ergot was just over the threshold and seemed to show up primarily in wheat that was drought stressed early, then experienced uneven flowering with second and third tillers after the early June rains. Between farmer awareness and elevator education, a good job has been done of isolating problem wheat."
-- "Ergot was present on a few loads but it was few and far between at best. Nothing the elevator couldn't work with."
-- "Our varieties did not have ergot, but it is out there. While I was in line with a semi to unload at an elevator, they were unloading a train car that graded 0.07 ergot after loading."
-- "We did see a bit of ergot on our farm, but so far is has not been something that is above the threshold for discounts."
-- "Ergot has shown up, but not near as bad as some in the trade has made it out to be. They are making it out to be a bigger problem than it really is and causing panic in the trade."
-- "We saw two fields where you could see a few kernels of ergot. Otherwise, the new crop produced pretty clean, good milling wheat."
-- "Had to send some wheat home with higher ergot levels than accepted, so will have to deal with it later."
-- "We did not have any ergot."
In summary, those I spoke with (that saw some ergot), were able to work with it or rejected the wheat, while others noted no sign of it or not enough to show up in the final grade. There are pockets of ergot that do exist, but from what I have heard, it is not an epidemic.
Here are some links to North Dakota State University about ergot:
Mary Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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