When the five-year county wheat yield average is 28 bushels an acre (bpa) and the yield monitor hits triple digits, a first likely thought is it's time for a service call or maybe an eye checkup.
However, for Brandon Friesen, from Al's Broken Bar Farms in Meade, Kansas, the 115.26 bpa flashing on the screen was no fluke. It landed the southwest Kansas grower first place in the dryland winter wheat category of the National Wheat Foundation's National Wheat Yield Contest.
During this second year for the national contest, organizers had some anxious moments this growing season as a late-May blizzard blasted parts of winter wheat country and counterpunched with a drought over much of spring wheat territory. Still, wheat showed just how many lives it has -- pumping out impressive yields despite the challenges.
Phillip Gross of Warden, Washington, took top bin-buster honors with a yield of 184.29 bpa with the Limagrain JET variety. This is the second year that Gross has topped the yield portion of the contest. Last year he got 192.85 bpa from his contest plot.
National winners are also named in four individual categories: irrigated winter, dryland winter, irrigated spring and dryland spring using a formula to account for regional growing differences.
In order to level the playing field across the 42 wheat-producing states in those categories, the organizing committee measures the percent yield increase above the county average of the field location. This measurement allows growers to compete against their local county growers. The USDA NASS county average published in January 2017 is used -- the same information used to base Title I farm bill payments.
For example, Friesen's final yield on his plot was a whopping 312% over his county average. The same field saw a harvest average of only 28 bpa in 2014 and has a 10-year farm average that hovers around 45 bpa.
"There is never a crop guarantee when dryland farming in this area," Friesen told DTN. "What contributed most to our yield results were timely rains and cool weather during the filling period." He planted WestBred's Grainfield variety.
Dan Mills, who farms near Stanfield, Oregon, landed first place in the irrigated spring wheat category. His WestBred Solano variety netted 137.85 bpa, which is 112% over the county five-year average of 65 bpa. While that's an impressive yield, Mills -- who also won the category last year -- noted that his previous yield came in at 146.5 bpa.
"We're in a unique area where we average 7 inches to 8 inches of rain per year, and most of that rain falls between November and March," Mills said. "But even though we can control the amount of water on the crop, we are still at the mercy of weather. Good growing conditions can help us push yields higher."
For Paul Solem, of Oslo, Minnesota, the first year of entering the wheat yield contest netted first place in the dryland spring wheat category. The WestBred WB9479 variety came in at 103.42 bpa, 88% above the county five-year average of 55 bpa. "We had ideal weather throughout the growing season, and that really pushed our yields higher," Solem said.
EYE ON MANAGEMENT
While management methods will vary among wheat producers, an overarching theme emerged from the winners: Keep a tight eye on management, give the crops needed fertility and disease protection and buy certified seed.
"We used the same fertility and disease management program as last year," Friesen said. "It shows that these new varieties can really perform, given ideal growing conditions. And that's why we plant them. Because if the weather is good, we can really produce some good yields."
Friesen is a third-generation wheat farmer, who farms about 3,000 acres. In his region, farming moisture is just as important as the crop. "We keep our fields clean, because weeds take away valuable moisture."
Friesen used Vibrance EXT and Revize seed treatments, and a fungicide post-emergence. "We will sample our soils every year and take care of our fertility needs," Friesen said. That included a starter fertilizer, as well as top-dressing after emergence in November. He bumped up his planting rate this year, putting on 82 pounds per acre. "We had a good subsoil moisture profile at planting, so we wanted to get a few more pounds on to take advantage of it," he said.
Paul Solem, who farms with his brothers Peter and Jim, said Solem Farms includes about 3,000 acres of wheat, soybeans and sugar beets. Seeding wheat at 105 lbs./acre, they used a single-disk air seeder and incorporated a dry starter fertilizer. "We also take care of any weed pressure early," Paul Solem said. He used Tilt and Prosaro fungicides.
While wheat prices have pressured some growers, Mills still sees good returns with the new high-yielding varieties. The Stanfield, Oregon, area is high mountain desert, and he also grows peppermint and spearmint for oil and leaves. Wheat is an important rotational crop that provides consistent yields. The Dark Northern Spring wheat variety he grows garners a premium when protein levels are higher. Farming with his two brothers, they use a 150 lbs./acre planting rate and fertilize through the sprinkler irrigation system. "We give the crop what it needs, and work with our consultant to ensure we are meeting fertility needs of the crop," he said.
"The great thing about yield contests is that it provides useful crop information that we can put into practice," said irrigated winter wheat winner Ty Anderson, of Pine Bluff, Wyoming. His 146.5 bpa entry was 405% above the county five-year average.
"We are always looking at ways we can push our yields, and the contest gets us thinking outside the box," he said. His winning entry was Cowboy, a wheat variety released jointly by universities in Wyoming and Colorado.
Anderson, along with his father and grandfather, raises and sells certified seed wheat. "We grow both irrigated and dryland wheat, so it is helpful to have as much information as possible on how a variety will yield in different conditions," Anderson said. "And we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature."
Having as much data as possible helps Anderson make better management decisions. He uses field-size test plots to provide useful information he can put into practice. "Our entries served as 10 different large-scale plots. We pay close attention to see if there are management practices that will help us boost revenue on our entire farm," Anderson said.
A late hailstorm knocked out a field he was certain was a contender. "But even with a 75% loss, we still harvested 56 bpa. No telling what the final yield could have been, but that just shows that no matter what we do, we are still at the mercy of the weather."
Gross may have set the yield curve again, but the crop got off to a rough start. In the fall, rain saturated the ground and four months of snow cover led to early growth that looked poor to the eye. "We saw poor growth, reduced tillering, bound roots and nutrient deficiency," he said. "So we adjusted our management and attempted to reduce as much of the stress on the crop as we could, especially during the flowering and fruit stages." That included topdressing fertilizer, and applying additional nitrogen and sulfur. He also applied fungicides twice during the growing season to combat disease pressure.
"That crop really surprised us," Gross admitted. "We had excellent fill and we had a yield bonus because of the size of the berries." While the overall yield was down in 2017, he said he learned that if you treat the crop well, and diminish the stress to the crop, it will produce.
GROWTH IN ENTRIES
In its second year, the national contest saw a surge in entries compared to its inaugural season. "Contest entries more than doubled from 2016 with a total of 287 entries in 2017. I am excited to see that the Foundation's NWYC is attracting more and more wheat farmers from a broad range of states each year," said Phil McLain, chairman of the National Wheat Foundation Board and wheat grower from Statesville, North Carolina. Entries were received from 27 states.
To expand the contest in 2018, the Foundation Board is adding a quality component to the competition. "The United States produces the highest-quality of wheat globally, which will now be reflected in this contest. We hope that by adding this new quality component, the Foundation's NWYC will become the nation's most competitive contest for wheat growers," McLain said.
Solem said the contest is especially fun if you win, but more than that, he's looking for yield tips that he can use next year. "We can't control the weather, but we can do all we can to ensure the crop is given every opportunity to yield," he said.
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