The Wonder of Wheat

Three Wheat Growers Top 200 BPA in National Yield Contest

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Wheat harvest on a western Kansas farm, where growers are pushing the limits of wheat productivity. Three wheat growers breached the 200-bushel barrier in the National Wheat Yield Contest this year. (DTN photo by Joel Reichenberger)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- It was another record-setting year for the National Wheat Yield Contest, which announced its 2019 winners Tuesday. Three winners topped 200 bushels per acre (bpa), with Rick Pearson of Buhl, Idaho, gleaning top yield honors with a 211.59-bpa irrigated winter wheat entry.

Close behind him was Marc Arnusch of Keenesburg, Colorado, whose irrigated winter wheat field reached 210.52 bpa, and Phillip Gross, whose irrigated winter wheat field in Warden, Washington, hit 200.48 bpa.

DTN/Progressive Farmer is the official media outlet of the contest, which is sponsored by the National Wheat Foundation.

This year, the results of the annual competition cast a spotlight on the widely varying wheat-growing regions of the U.S.

First, there is Pearson, who, from the rich, river-fed soils of his southern Idaho farm, grew a field of densely packed, soft white winter wheat bursting with nearly 212 bushels per acre.

Then there is Shawn Kimbrell, who coaxed 70.93 bushels per acre from a hard red winter wheat variety on his dryland soils in the semi-arid High Plains of Texas, where wheat is more often forage for livestock than award-winning grain.

Two completely different yields, yet two wheat contest winners.

Pearson won the contest's Bin Buster Award for irrigated wheat this year, which recognizes the highest-yielding irrigated wheat entry. Kimbrell won first place in the dryland winter wheat category for the highest above-average wheat entry -- his field was 373% above his county's five-year average of 15 bpa.

Wheat has long been an everyman's crop. It has the reputation of growing wherever you put it, with whatever you give it. The National Wheat Foundation's annual wheat yield contest wants to recognize that, while also pushing growers to ask more of the tough, versatile grain crop.

"My concern has long been that wheat genetics are outstripping the management ability of the average wheat farmer," said Steve Joehl, director of the wheat contest. "But not these winners. They get it -- they understand wheat's potential."

For the first time, the contest now recognizes two tiers of winners -- high-yield winners and winners who produce the highest above-average yields for their region. It also recognizes two overall winners for the highest-yielding irrigated and dryland wheat, called Bin Buster awards. Here are 2019's Bin Buster and First Place winners:

-- BIN BUSTER IRRIGATED WINNER: Rick Pearson, Buhl, Idaho: 211.59 bpa, AgriPro SY Ovation.

-- BIN BUSTER DRYLAND WINNER: Tom Duyck, Forest Grove, Oregon: 191.66 bpa, OSU Rosalyn.

-- FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, IRRIGATED WINTER WHEAT: Marc Arnusch, Keenesburg, Colorado: 210.52 bpa, WB 4418.

-- FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT: Doug Stout, Genesee, Idaho: 181.93 bpa, WB Keldin.

-- FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, IRRIGATED SPRING WHEAT: Derek Friehe, Moses Lake, Washington: 180.77 bpa, WB 9668.

-- FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT: Trevor Stout, Genesee, Idaho: 111.13, WB 9668.

-- FIRST PLACE, ABOVE-AVERAGE YIELD, DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT: Shawn Kimbrell, Sunray, Texas: 70.93 bpa (372.87% above county avg), WB Winterhawk.

-- FIRST PLACE ABOVE-AVERAGE YIELD, DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT: Derrick Enos, Baker, Montana: 94.95 bpa (239.11% above county avg), LCS Trigger.

See full details on the winners here:….

This year, the contest received 397 initial entries, up 25% from last year. The contest finished with 154 final harvested samples, down slightly from last year and a sign of the historically challenging environmental conditions of 2019, Joehl said.

"It tells you as the season progressed, the year got very hard in some wheat-production areas and farmers didn't follow through with harvesting the plot entry," he said. "Especially in the Northern Plains -- it was just so wet. There are some farmers still trying to harvest spring wheat there."

Those final harvested samples were run through a laboratory analysis as part of the contest's quality component, first introduced in 2018. Only Grade 1 and Grade 2 wheat samples are eligible to place in the contest, which trimmed the final competitors down by 11 to 143. The lab also tests other quality factors like protein, test weight, falling weight and hardness.

The contest's three yields over 200 bpa come just one year after Washington grower Gross first breached that barrier in the 2018 contest with a 202-bpa yield. Joehl is hopeful that these yield gains prove the contest is pushing growers to compete their way into optimum wheat production systems.

"There's a systems gap between the average-yield-producing farmers and these top-end-yielding contest winners," he said. "That's the information we have to spread. If you want to make wheat productive, you have to manage it as intensively as corn -- maybe more intensively."

While geography and resources vary widely among the contest winners, certain management factors emerge as integral: water availability, fertilizer applications (calibrated just right for each field's yield potential), carefully timed pesticide applications and scouting -- lots of scouting.

"I never go a day that I don't see my farm," said Texas' Kimbrell. "I heard a quote once -- 'The best fertilizer you can put on a crop is a farmer's shadow' -- and I thought that was perfect. If you don't go out and see your fields every week, you can't provide what it needs in a timely manner."

Arnusch, whose irrigated soft white winter wheat field in Colorado yielded 210.52 bpa, pulls tissue samples throughout the growing season, trying to create an on-farm database showing how nutrient levels affect the growth, development and quality of the wheat.

Pearson's top-yielding field in Idaho went in behind a potato crop, so the soil was brimming with leftover fertility, he noted. But in the springtime, it got another dose of nitrogen, herbicides, fungicides and a plant growth regulator that thickened the stalk and helped it stay standing until harvest.

The result of this intensive management isn't just high-yielding wheat, it's also high-quality wheat, Joehl noted. Protein levels in hard red winter wheat entries were consistently high, with most ranging from 11% to 13%, despite towering yields. Most of the hard red spring wheat entries yielded protein levels ranging between 13% and 17%.

"We need to start changing our thought process toward growing more high-quality wheat and -- even more importantly -- understanding what that quality is and being able to communicate it to the end user," said Arnusch. His farm has recently started adding value to their wheat operation by growing some wheat acres to supply Colorado's celebrated craft beer industry.

Above all else, wheat must be profitable. With low commodity prices, a global glut of wheat and record-low wheat acreage in the Great Plains, profit margins are a top concern -- even among contest winners.

Pearson treats his wheat acres the same, contest entries and all. In fact, his winning contest entry lay within 65 acres that averaged an overall yield of 191 bpa. "It was some of our best ground," he notes. "I drove by it every day, but I never dreamed it was that good."

The only input Arnusch's winning wheat field received that his other acres didn't was the addition of ultra-filtered liquid manure from a nearby dairy. But all his other wheat fields get the same careful nutrient application, pesticides, scouting and sampling treatment, he noted.

For growers in less-fertile climes, less is more. Kimbrell believes the most influential and profitable practice on his no-till Texas operation is letting each acre rest one out of every three years. Each growing season, one-third of his fields grow wheat, one-third grow cotton, and another third lay fallow. "Everybody talks about wheat not being profitable, but I disagree," he said. "I'll make more money off growing wheat on one-third of my acres than I would farming the whole thing every year."

The contest is building a valuable database for the industry, as wheat yields and quality results are gathered along with the contestants' wide range of management practices each year, Joehl noted. He hopes that, someday, this trove of agronomic insights will push generations of wheat growers to discover new and more profitable ways to grow high-quality wheat.

For some, the contest is already doing that.

"Our approach to this wheat yield contest isn't one of coffee-shop bragging rights," explained Arnusch. "It's putting our management style up against the very best in the industry and learning from it. I've drawn a lot of good information and thought processes from other winners in past years. It helps me try to think about the crop differently than I ever have before."

Read more about the contest here:….

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Emily Unglesbee