ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- How do you inspire a busy 10-crop farmer to focus on wheat?
Tell him what his neighbor is yielding!
That's what pushed Derek Friehe, from Moses Lake, Washington, to net the 2020 National Wheat Yield Contest's Bin Buster award for irrigated winter wheat, with a field of Limagrain Jet that hit 206.7 bushels per acre (bpa).
"You always hear stories about yield claims, and you figure people often exaggerate," said Friehe, whose family grows a wide range of high-value crops, from potatoes to sweet corn and peas. "But with the contest, we were hearing about real, official wheat yields from people close by us. It makes you wonder: 'Who are they working with? What are they doing? What are we missing?'"
Friehe was among 24 national winners announced on Monday by the National Wheat Yield Contest, now in its fifth year. DTN/Progressive Farmer is the official media outlet of the contest, which is sponsored by the National Wheat Foundation.
The contest prompted a record 418 wheat field entries from 29 states across the country, up 5% from last year, said Steve Joehl, wheat contest director. This year's national winners hail from as far east as Pennsylvania, through the Midwest, out to the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington, and from North Dakota down to Oklahoma.
Friehe's winning wheat field was the highest overall yield this year and marks the third year in a row that wheat growers have topped 200 bpa in the contest. The contest handed out four Bin Buster awards for the highest overall yield in four categories this year:
BIN BUSTER IRRIGATED WINTER WHEAT: Derek Friehe, Moses Lake, Washington
-- 206.7 bpa with Limagrain Jet
BIN BUSTER IRRIGATED SPRING WHEAT: Terry Wilcox, Rexburg, Idaho
-- 172.6 bpa with WestBred (WB) 9668
BIN BUSTER DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT: Bruce Ruddenklau; Amity, Oregon
--191.17 bpa with OSU Rosalyn
BIN BUSTER DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT: Trevor Stout; Genesee, Idaho
-- 139.22 bpa with WestBred (WB) 9303
Western growers continued to shine in the contest's High Yield award category, with these first-place winners:
FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, IRRIGATED WINTER WHEAT: Joel Zwainz, Reardan, Washington
-- 197.15 bpa with Limagrain Shine
FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, IRRIGATED SPRING WHEAT: Dallin Wilcox, Rexburg Idaho
-- 167.02 bpa with WestBred (WB) 9707
FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, DRYLAND WINTER WHEAT: John Dixon, Pomeroy, Washington
-- 189.97 bpa, with McGregor Seed M-Press
FIRST PLACE, HIGH YIELD, DRYLAND SPRING WHEAT: Randy Duncan, Tekoa, Washington
-- 125.79 bpa with WestBred (WB) 6121
In a nod to the diverse geographic range of wheat-growing regions and water availability, the contest also awards dryland farmers whose yields surpass their average county yields by the largest margin. This year, the first-place winners were:
FIRST PLACE, ABOVE-AVERAGE YIELD, WINTER WHEAT: Travis Freeburg, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming
-- 110.37 bpa (a 350% increase over Laramie County avg.), with WestBred (WB) 4462
FIRST PLACE, ABOVE-AVERAGE YIELD, SPRING WHEAT: Jon Wert, New England, North Dakota
-- 105 bpa (a 161% increase over Slope County avg.) with LCS Trigger
See a full listing of 2020 national winners here: https://wheatfoundation.org/….
A LOOK AT 2020 ENTRIES
Kansas growers once again led the contest in submitted fields, accounting for 16% of the entries. Next highest was North Dakota and Nebraska, followed by Oklahoma and Washington. Entries from the eastern half of the county, particularly Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, rose from last year, Joehl said.
Despite drought conditions plaguing the region, Southern Plains wheat growers dominated the above-average yield category, with three growers from Oklahoma and one Kansas grower placing in the dryland winter wheat category behind Wyoming's Freeburg. North Dakota growers swept the above-average spring wheat category. In contrast, High Yield winners for irrigated winter wheat were a diverse group, with winners from Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan joining winners from the more established high-yielding regions of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
In addition to yield, the contest organizers require entrants to submit a grain sample of their final harvested entry, which is analyzed for quality characteristics such as grade, protein, falling number and more. This year, the contest analyzed 177 harvested grain entries, and found that 166 made Grade 1 or Grade 2, the cutoff to compete. Now the samples will go through a rigorous slate of tests to determine their flour quality -- the final word on a wheat crop's value. (For more information on how wheat is assessed for its quality and flour, see this DTN/Progressive Farmer story here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…).
GETTING A JUMP ON WHEAT
Despite their geographic diversity, all the winners this year have one thing in common: intensive management, right from the start, Joehl said.
"These guys are slogging through their wheat fields on those cold, wet early March days, counting tillers, looking for disease, doing tissue tests," he said. "That is an ugly time to walk fields, but every one of these guys I've spoken to is doing that."
On Friehe's diverse cropping operation in Washington, wheat was often put on the back burner. But as soon as the contest inspired him to take a second look, Friehe pegged early season management as the primary opportunity for improvement.
He credits lowering his seeding rate to encourage fall tillering and full utilization of each plant, as well as "front-loading" his nutrient applications earlier in the season, so they are available as soon as the wheat plant's nitrogen needs start to spike in the springtime. Insecticide and fungicide passes are another non-negotiable for him. And of course, plenty of water, which Friehe can pull from the region's Columbia Basin.
"It's definitely paying off," he added. "Our whole field -- 135 acres -- yielded what that contest entry hit. That was more exciting to us than the contest even."
For many, making wheat work for you is a matter of finding not its maximum yield, but it's maximum economic yield -- the point where the crop gives you the most profit per acre.
Travis Freeburg, who won first place for his dryland winter wheat field, which yielded 350% above the county average, knows this dynamic well. Where he farms in the southeastern corner of Wyoming, violent thunderstorms form over his wheat fields every spring and summer, and hail losses are an annual affair. This year, his winning wheat field entry just barely dodged the dreaded White Combine to make 110.37 bpa.
"We got hailed out on both ends of the field, but then this one particular low spot in the middle got all the rain from those thunderstorms and none of the hail," he marveled. So Freeburg is careful where he places his nutrients and other inputs, using variable-rate applications of micronutrients and doing soil and tissue samples before planting and throughout the season to only give the soil what it needs, when it needs it.
Keeping nutrients in the field is a major commitment for high-yield farmers, Joehl said. "That's a big deal with these growers -- they don't want nitrates washing down into rivers," he said. "They're trying to keep nutrients on the farm."
For Doug and Trevor Stout, variable-rate fertilizer applications were a key management decision that helped them simultaneously maximize yields and conserve inputs. The Stouts farm chickpeas, canola and wheat in Genesee, Idaho. This year, they placed twice -- once in the high yield category with a dryland winter wheat field, as well as netting the Bin Buster award for Trevor's dryland spring wheat field that hit 139.22 bpa. "We variable-rate apply nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur on three different zones: our best, good and poor zones," Doug explained. The Stouts then pull tissue tests at flag leaf to monitor nutrient levels and see if the crop needs more to make their protein goals. "We'll also do 3-foot soil samples in the spring, to see where the field's nitrogen levels are at," Doug said.
Soil health and management was another common theme among the contest winners. The farthest eastern winner, Darren Grumbine, pushed his dryland winter wheat field to 152.86 bpa in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in large part thanks to his soil quality, he noted.
"We've built organic matter in our soils up to around 4%, up from 1% to 1.5% when we got it," he said. Grumbine adds chicken manure and dairy manure two of every three years in between his corn, soybean and wheat rotations. He also heads to the field in the early spring and counts tillers to determine how much and how often to apply nitrogen that season. Two fungicide passes and ideal weather -- a cool, wet spring and drier, warm finish -- did the rest of the work, he said.
A final defining aspect of the winners? Excitement, Joehl said.
"My biggest takeaway from this year was that there is still excitement about this," he said. "There is so much learning that even repeat winners experience while they're doing this. It just pushes them to think about it more."
Next week, the National Wheat Yield Contest will announce its state-level winners. To see a full list of all the 2020 winners, keep an eye on this website: https://wheatfoundation.org/….
To see last year's DTN story on the 2019 winners, visit here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee
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