2021 National Wheat Yield Contest

Wheat Farmers Grow Award-Winning Grain in a Year of Weather Extremes

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Steve VanGrunsven harvests a white winter wheat field that hit 192 bpa, earning him top yield honors in the 2021 National Wheat Yield Contest. The contest's entrants clocked impressive yields in a year marked by weather extremes like drought and record freezes and heat waves. (Photo courtesy of Steve VanGrunsven)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Give wheat an inch, and it will take a mile or -- in this case -- many award-winning bushels per acre.

That's how John Hofer of Milnor, North Dakota, squeezed 122.23 bpa from a dryland spring wheat field that received only 4 inches of rainfall throughout the growing season, the result of a two-year drought plaguing the Northern Plains. Hofer had nearly given up on the field in June, but well-timed spurts of rain nursed it along, and the rest is now history.

"The wheat was only 18 to 20 inches tall," said Hofer, who farms on Sundale Farm, within the Sundale Hutterite Colony, and grew West Bred variety WB9590. "That is what surprised us even more. It was short wheat, but it yielded to high heaven."

That heaven-sent yield landed Hofer a Bin Buster award for the highest yield in a dryland spring wheat field in the 2021 National Wheat Yield Contest, which announced its results today. DTN/Progressive Farmer is the official media outlet of the contest, which is sponsored by the National Wheat Foundation (NWF).

Overall, the 2021 contest was a testament to the hardiness of the humble wheat plant, said Anne Osborne, NWF's project manager for the contest.

"Better than expected -- that's what we're saying for this year," she said. "Even with the drought, the Valentine's Day freeze and too much moisture at harvest in the Northeast, most growers are saying wheat looks better than expected. It is resilient, that's for sure."


The contest's highest yield honors went to Steven VanGrunsven, of Forest Grove, Oregon, whose irrigated white winter wheat field of Limagrain's LCS Shine crested 192.73 bpa and earned him a Bin Buster award for that category. (Each category has a Bin Buster award for highest overall yield, as well as traditional first, second and third places). Not far behind him was Phillip Gross, of Warden, Washington, whose irrigated spring wheat field of AgriPro's AP Venom secured that category's Bin Buster award with a yield of 184.36 bpa. And in the dryland winter wheat category, Scot Poffenberger netted the Bin Buster award by pushing a field of Pioneer's 26R59 to 141.41 bpa, on William F. Willard Farms in Frederick, Maryland.

The National Wheat Yield Contest distinguishes itself from other commodity contests by also recognizing dryland growers who yield the farthest above their county averages -- a nod to the diverse geography of wheat-growing regions. All in all, the contest recognizes 24 national winners and dozens of state winners each year.

At 387 entries and 150 final harvested samples, contest participation was down a little from last year, a drop driven almost entirely by drought-reduced spring wheat acreage in the Northern Plains, Osborne said.

What surprised her -- and growers -- was the quality of spring wheat that did make it through the season. "The spring wheat entries we got were very high quality, with a lot of 14 and 15 protein," she said.

No one was more surprised than Hofer, whose winning spring wheat field didn't get its usual June nutrient sidedressing pass, because its potential looked so low. But the dry soils must have held tight to the 100 pounds of nitrogen -- partly from turkey litter -- 50 units of phosphate and 40 units of potash that were broadcast before planting, he said.

Dryness and heat were also a limiting factor where VanGrunsven's winning winter wheat field grew in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. That's a stark change for growers there, who usually battle too much moisture and the ensuing disease and spray delays, VanGrunsven noted.

But this June, temperatures soared as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit, roasting summer crops, shattering grass seeds and practically making jam out of berry fields, VanGrunsven recalled. Fortunately, all his fields have access to irrigation, which helped the wheat weather those extremes. Nearly as critically, that winning field also got a dose of the abundant manure stores from his family farm's dairy. "That's one of our secret ingredients, I guess," he said. He estimates the field got the equivalent of about 200 lbs of nitrogen, half from manure and half from spring-applied urea, as well potash and sulfur.

Out in central Maryland, Poffenberger is staying mum about one new secret ingredient on his winning dryland winter wheat field -- a micronutrient he added to his fall planting regimen, along with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He also experimented with a foliar fertilizer pass at the Feekes 6 growth stage. But the real winning ingredient was simply Mother Nature's cooperation, he added. "A lot of it had to do with good weather at planting, good weather in the spring, good growing temperatures and timely rains, and then it dried up about three to four weeks before harvest -- that always seems to help us get better yields."


The contest winners credited the genetics of the wheat seed they plant with setting them up for success, as well.

"Our goal is high quality, low protein, soft white wheat," said VanGrunsven, who sends his wheat through the Port of Portland to a variety of Asian markets. "Our buyers pay more for quality, and these new varieties are helping us out with that. We may have had fewer bushels per acre this year, but the quality was amazing. I don't know a farmer in my area who went under 60-lb test weights."

A focus on wheat quality is a unique part of the wheat contest, Osborne noted. The contest organizers don't just want high yield -- they want a good loaf of bread, or the perfect pastry, at the end of the process.

As a result, only Grade 1 and Grade 2 wheat can qualify for rankings and the 24 national winners will now have their samples shipped off for an exhaustive set of baking and milling tests. The goal is to build a database that can sort out how wheat management practices affect critical quality standards, Osborne said. "What we're looking forward to learning is how to get these higher yields and keep that excellent quality that customers want," she explained.

"We unite all sides of the industry," Osborne added, noting that the contest counts both seed companies and end users of wheat among their sponsors. "All parts of the industry are supportive of our effort to raise the quality of the country's wheat."

Here's a glance at the top-ranking national winners:


-- Bin Buster: Steven VanGrunsven, Forest Grove, Oregon; 192.73 bpa, with Limagrain's LCS Shine

-- First Place: Rylee Reynolds, Castleford, Idaho; 190.06 bpa, with Syngenta's SY Ovation.


-- Bin Buster: Phillip Gross, Warden, Washington; 184.36 bpa, with AgriPro's AP Venom

-- First Place: Boe Clausen, Warden Washington; 157.73 bpa, with AgriPro's AP Venom


-- Bin Buster: William F. Willard Farms, Frederick, Maryland; 141.41 bpa, with Pioneer's 26R59

-- First Place: Jeffery Krohn, Owendale, Michigan; 140.55 bpa with Dyna-Gro's 9242

-- Highest Above Average Yield: Travis Freeburg, Pine Bluffs, Nebraska; 108.29 bpa, 257% above the county average, with Plains Gold's Langin.


-- Bin Buster: John Hofer, Milnor, North Dakota; 122.23 bpa with West Bred's WB9590

-- First Place: Dallas Diesen, Wannaska, Minnesota; 114.81 bpa, with West Bred's WB9590

-- Highest Above Average Yield: Greg Messer, Richardton, North Dakota; 108.04 bpa, 158% above the county average, with West Bred's WB9590.

See the full results in NWF's press release on the national winners here: https://wheatfoundation.org/… and the state winners here: https://wheatfoundation.org/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee