Irrigated Winter Wheat Winner Profile

Washington Farmer Bins 211.98 BPA Irrigated Winter Wheat

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Taking top honors in the irrigated winter wheat category of the National Wheat Yield Contest this year was Chris Gross, who farms with the Spokane Hutterian Brethren near Reardan, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Chris Gross)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- A 211.98-bushel-per-acre (bpa) yield might cause some wheat growers to check their yield monitor accuracy. But for Chris Gross, a Reardan, Washington, farmer, the tally fell a few kernels short of what he hoped might be possible this growing season.

Still, the result was enough to win Gross top honors in the irrigated winter wheat category of the 2023 National Wheat Yield Contest -- outyielding the next competitor in the category by 10 bpa and besting yields in all other contest categories this year.

Now in its eighth year, the yield contest organized by the National Wheat Foundation (NWF) is designed to encourage wheat growers to strive for high yield, quality and profit while trying new and innovative management strategies. DTN/Progressive Farmer is the official media outlet of the competition.

Gross farms as a member of the Spokane Hutterian Brethren, a 140-member community steeped in generations of tradition while also utilizing the latest in technology. Their wheat-growing efforts have placed them solidly in the top tier of the wheat contest entrants for several years. This is the first year they have topped a category to earn what the contest deems "Bin Buster" honors.

Chris Gross said the winning wheat yield was raised in a field of mixed soil type. "The area where the highest yield was recorded has a higher water table, and it was sitting in a lower area. The rest of the circle is sandier," he noted.

Sensors (both in the soil and on the irrigator) are used to determine water needs, but Chris said yield maps indicated those sandier parts of the field would have benefitted from more water this year. That has him looking hard at how to improve water-holding capacity for coming crops. Variable-rate irrigation (VRI) is used to apply water and nutrients more precisely.

This year's entry followed potatoes in the rotation. The variety, WestBred Keldin, is a perennial winner in the contest. The medium- to late-maturity hard red winter wheat offers excellent powdery mildew tolerance and handles a diverse set of growing conditions. The variety had a target seeding rate of 750,000 seeds per acre in 7.5-inch spacings.

David Gross, the community's farm manager and a cousin to Chris, said lack of humidity helps make this area of eastern Washington superior for growing wheat. "Our dry, arid climate removes a lot of the pressure from diseases," he said. "Although, we still use fungicide when needed."

The winning wheat entry had 20 inches of water applied throughout the growing season. This region receives approximately 15 to 18 inches of natural precipitation annually but gets only a few inches of that rainfall in-season.

Starter fertilizer is applied at planting, but the bulk of the crop's fertility requirements are supplied through irrigation water. Microbials go out as a foliar feed with a sprayer as needed.

Seed potatoes are an important crop here, and they require constant tissue testing and monitoring. This attention to detail carries over to the wheat crop, David said. They typically tissue test wheat at the flag leaf stage and again later in the season.

"This is hard red winter wheat, so we know we must make protein. We're testing to make sure we do that," David said. Maintaining protein and maximizing yield requires making sure nitrogen is available through critical growth periods. Total nutrients applied per acre to the 2023 winning entry was 374 pounds of nitrogen; 20 pounds of phosphorus; 40 pounds of potash and 68 pounds of sulfur. Wheat is typically grown every fifth year and rotated with crops such as potatoes, canola, peas and corn.

Most of the community's wheat production goes to Shepherd's Grain, a farmer-owned company that prides itself in establishing connections between the food producer and bakeries, food processors and consumers.

Jeremy Bunch, CEO of Shepherd's Grain, works with 40-plus growers across the Pacific Northwest. The Hutterite community's ability to work together gives it a different dynamic than some traditional farms, he noted.

"They have a lot of manpower to keep on top of managing a crop. Plus, they are continual learners about all aspects of agriculture. They really do a wonderful job of consistently raising quality wheat," said Bunch. "This area of the country is also ideal for growing wheat with a nearly Mediterranean-style climate of hot, dry summers and early fall, and precipitation in the winter months."

Shepherd's Grain often uses the Hutterite community's professional kitchen to test grains for baking qualities. For example, the company is currently assessing if tillage practices result in tangible differences in wheat quality and taste.

This kind of learning strikes a chord with Chris and David Gross. Information is one of the reasons they take time to enter the national wheat contest.

"The contest keeps us motivated to be more efficient. We don't try to put on extra inputs to win," David said. "We treat all our acres the same (as contest acres), and every year work to make sure nothing is wasted in growing the crop. We are just always looking to learn better ways to do that, and we like comparing with others trying to do the same."

The wheat yield bar was set high in 2022 when Idaho farmer Rylee Reynolds set a record by producing 231.37 bpa of irrigated soft white winter wheat. David took the WestBred Keldin variety to 206 bpa that same year, enough to place second in the state of Washington. He also placed first in the state's National Corn Growers Yield Contest in 2022 with a 300.31 bpa entry in the Strip, Minimum, Mulch, Ridge-Till, Irrigated Category. Corn hybrids grown in this region tend to range between 80 to 90 days in relative maturity.

The farm is beginning to test new biological-type products, a market which is currently big and confusing, but shows promise, Chris acknowledged. "That market is going to be exciting to figure out. It is also going to take a more hands-on approach to using biologicals and understanding how and why they work in certain areas, which favors those who take time to learn and study it," he said.

The area where he pulled the 2023 winning wheat sample is a similar learning tool, in his opinion. "Overall, our tiller counts weren't quite as high as we liked (in 2023). What made the area we pulled this sample from better? We are really examining our data and hoping to figure that out so we can apply it to another crop," he said.


Winners in the 2023 National Wheat Yield Contest Winter Wheat - Irrigated Category include:

-- Bin Buster: Chris Gross

Reardan, Washington

Variety: WestBred Keldin

Yield: 211.98 bpa

-- First Place: Gary Reynolds

Castleford, Idaho

Variety: Syngenta SY Ovation

Yield: 201.94 bpa

-- Second Place: Nick Suwyn

Wayland, Michigan

Variety: DF Seeds DF-131

Yield: 171.71 bpa


Meet the Spring Wheat - Irrigated Category winner here:…

Meet the Winter Wheat - Dryland Category winner here:…

Meet the Spring Wheat - Dryland Category winner here:…

More on this year's yield contest can be found here:…

For more information on the yield contest and to view past winners, go to:…

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Pamela Smith

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