Glean More From Wheat

Contest winners spin top yields despite a tough year.

Image by Pamela Smith

When the yield monitor hits triple digits during ‌wheat harvest, your first thought might be that ‌it’s time for a service call or maybe an eye exam.

For Brandon Friesen, Meade, Kansas, the 115.26 bushels per acre flashing on the screen this past summer was no fluke--it led to first-place honors in the 2017 dryland winter wheat category of the National Wheat Foundation National Wheat Yield Contest. The yield is even more remarkable considering the five-year county yield average for his area is 28 bushels per acre.

In its second year, 287 contest entries flowed in from 27 states, despite a rough season for the golden crop. 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.

A top overall yield of 184.29 bushels per acre was recorded by Phillip Gross, Warden, Washington, who also won the contest in 2016. National winners are also named in four individual categories: irrigated winter, dryland winter, irrigated spring and dryland spring. Winning entries are awarded based on a formula that accounts for regional growing differences.

RAIN MAKES GRAIN. In order to level the playing field across the 42 wheat-producing states, the contest 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 National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) county average published in January 2017 was used to make the calculation--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 yielded 28 bushels per acre in 2014 and has a 10-year farm average that hovers around 45 bushels.

NO GUARANTEE. “There is never a crop guarantee when dryland farming in this area,” Friesen says. “What contributed most to our yield results were timely rains and cool weather during the filling period.”

Dan Mills, who farms near Stanfield, Oregon, placed first in the irrigated spring wheat category, with an entry of 137.85 bushels per acre, 112% over the county five-year average of 65 bushels. He won the same category last year with a yield of 146.5 bushels per acre.

“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 says. “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.”

Paul Solem, Oslo, Minnesota, topped the dryland spring wheat category in the first year of entering the contest with 103.42 bushels per acre--that’s 88% above the county five-year average of 55 bushels. “We had ideal weather throughout the growing season, and that really pushed our yields higher,” Solem says.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS. While management methods vary among wheat producers, an overarching theme emerged from the winners: Keep a tight eye on management, give the crop needed fertility and disease protection, and buy certified seed.

“We used the same fertility and disease-management program as last year,” Friesen says. “It shows that these new varieties can really perform given ideal growing conditions. And, that’s why we plant them. If the weather is good, we can really produce some good yields.”

Gross may have set the bin-busting yield curve again this year, 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 says. “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 admits. “We had excellent fill, and we had a yield bonus because of the size of the berries.” While the overall yield was down slightly from the 192.85 bushels per acre he won top yield honors with in 2016, he says this year showed how the crop will produce if you treat it well and diminish stress.

LEARNING TOOL. “The great thing about yield contests is that they provide useful crop information we can put into practice,” says irrigated winter wheat winner Ty Anderson, Albin, Wyoming. His 146.5 bushel-per-acre entry was 405% above the county five-year average.

He uses field-size contest 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,” he says.

Anderson also 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,” he says. “And we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

A late hailstorm knocked out a field he was certain would be a contest contender. “But, even with a 75% loss, we still harvested 56 bushels per acre,” Anderson says.

He sees the future for wheat and other commodities based on prescriptions for specific varieties set to soil conditions, rainfall and geography. Exact fertility programs, understanding micronutrient responses and fungicides that match up with the disease package within a variety, and better timing of management inputs will all be requirements, he believes.

“Wheat can be a tough crop to try to outguess, but we’re discovering that good management pays off. Every year, we continue to learn something new,” Anderson says.

For More Information:




Irrigated Winter Wheat Category:

Phillip Gross

Warden, Washington

Variety: Limagrain Jet (750,000 seeds per acre)

Yield: 184.29 bushels per acre, 247.72% over county five-year average

Farm Overview: Phillip Gross farms with the Warden Hutterian Brethren, a family farm that encompasses nearly 25,000 acres in central Washington. More than half of the acreage is under a limited-water-irrigation scenario. A declining water table makes water conservation a high priority.

Cropping Mix: Crop rotation is a must in the region. On irrigated land, the most common crops are wheat, potatoes, garbanzo beans, mint, corn, peas and bluegrass seed. They also have approximately 6,500 acres of dryland wheat in a summer fallow rotation.

Input Strategy: Applied roughly 1⁄3 of the fertilizer preplant, 1⁄3 topdress in the spring and 1⁄3 late season as a finisher for test weight and protein. Starter fertilizer consists of a specialized custom mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, zinc and some additional micronutrients for optimum seedling health. Herbicides, fungicides, PGRs (plant growth regulators), micronutrients and foliars are applied preferably earlier rather than later if conditions allow. Seed treatments are customized for specific areas according to pests and threats, and for specific wheat varieties. Tissue samples are pulled after Feekes 4 and continued once a month until wheat is mature.

Biggest Challenge: “It takes a lot of hard work, scouting and micromanaging to get wheat to reach the top of its potential, as well as keeping disease and pest pressure low, and plant health optimal,” Gross says. “Knowing how to respond correctly to certain scenarios at the appropriate time while not investing too many resources is probably the biggest challenge.”

High-Yield Hint: “Wheat is resilient, and if you’re able to diminish plant stress and apply needed nutrients in a timely manner, it will produce. Also, there’s no substitute for putting your shadow in the field and immediately catching any problems that pop up.”

Dryland Winter Wheat Category:

Brandon Friesen

Al’s Broken Bar Farms

Meade, Kansas

Variety: WestBred Grainfield (1,000,000 seeds per acre)

Yield: 115.26 bushels per acre, 311.64% over county five-year average

Farm Overview: Brandon Friesen is a third-generation producer farming about 3,000 acres in southwest Kansas with his father, Lyle. The average annual rainfall is about 18 inches. In addition to wheat, he raises milo, corn and cattle, and operates a custom harvesting business. Water management is critical--row crops are all grown using no-till practices. Weed management is a must to preserve moisture.

Input Strategy: Seed treated with Vibrance EXT and Revize seed treatments. Annual soil sampling. During October, applied 43 pounds per acre of 11-52-0 starter. In November, topdressed with 90 pounds of nitrogen. Bumped up seeding rate this year to take advantage of good subsoil moisture. Aerially applied fungicides in early May.

Biggest Challenge: “We do all we can to give the crop the best start possible,” Friesen says. “We use certified seed, seed treatments and take care of the fertility needs of the crop. Our 10-year average is about 45 bushels per acre, and we can have significantly lower yields if we don’t get timely rains. God blessed our area with timely rains and nearly ideal growing conditions in 2017, which contributed to our great yields.”

Why Wheat: “There is some great yield potential in these new wheat varieties. Even with the weather challenges we can face from year to year, we know that the potential is there.”

Dryland Spring Wheat Category:

Paul Solem

Solem Farms

Oslo, Minnesota

Variety: WestBred 9479 (105 pounds per acre)

Yield: 103.42 bushels per acre, 88.04% over county five-year average

Farm Overview: Solem farms with his two brothers, Peter and Jim, in Oslo, Minnesota, located in the far northwestern part of the state. Together, they farm about 3,000 acres of spring wheat, sugar beets and soybeans. Wheat is a major part of their crop rotation. This is the first year Solem has participated in the contest. The crop was planted May 10 and harvested Aug. 20.

Input Strategy: Planted certified wheat seed. Newer varieties have consistently performed if the weather cooperates. Seed treated with fungicide/insecticide (Helena Seed Shield Cereals at 5 ounces per 100 pounds of seed). Applied 70 pounds per acre starter (MicroEssentials MESZ). Urea (46-0-0) applied 283 pounds per acre. Early-season fungicide application of Tilt followed by a late-season application of Prosaro.

Biggest Challenge: “When the weather is good, we can get some very good yields,” Solem explains. “That’s why we start with good seed and watch our fertility and weed-management programs. In past years, we have had hailstorms that have heavily damaged our wheat crop, and if we don’t get timely rains, the crop can suffer. But, this year, we had excellent weather throughout the growing season.”

Why Wheat: “Wheat is an excellent rotational crop for us. But we’ve also been able to get some good yields. We just ensure we do everything we can to get the crop off to a good start.”

Irrigated Spring Wheat Category:

Dan Mills

Mills Mint Farm

Stanfield, Oregon

Variety: WestBred Solano (150-pounds-per-acre seeding rate)

Yield: 137.85 bushels per acre, 112.08% over county five-year average

Farm Overview: Dan Mills and brothers, Marvin and Monte, farm about 3,500 acres of owned and rented ground in the high mountain desert of north-central Oregon, near the Columbia River--land their father started farming in 1949. They also raise mint for oil and leaves. Wheat is an excellent rotational crop that provides consistent yields. He finds profits by selecting high-yielding varieties and pushing for protein premiums.

Input Strategy: Give the crop what it needs. Consultant tweaks and refines fertility program. Applied 100 pounds of nitrogen and 20 pounds of sulfur per acre (urea and ammonium sulfate) preplant. From emergence through flag leaf, split-applied 150 pounds of nitrogen and 30 pounds of sulfur through irrigation. Weed control and fungicide application at tillering. Pulled soil and leaf samples at flag leaf to determine if more fertilizer was needed to boost protein--typically another 40 pounds of nitrogen and 10 pounds of sulfur through irrigation water. Scout for stripe rust and fusarium head blight, and apply fungicide, if needed, at flag leaf to early heading. Manage soil moisture carefully during grain fill--goal is to push yield without causing disease or lodging.

Biggest Challenge: “We watch the bottom line to ensure what we put into the crop will provide us a return,” Mills explains. “Wheat can give us a very good return, even when the price of wheat is lower. We are always evaluating new wheat varieties and adjusting our fertility programs to get the most out of every acre.”

Why Wheat: “Some may think of wheat as a crop of last resort. And, it can be a challenge when prices are low. But, it’s a great rotational crop, and we have seen that good management can give us a good return.”

Irrigated Winter Wheat Category:

Ty Anderson

Prairie Farms

Albin, Wyoming

Variety: Cowboy (1.2 million seeds per acre)

Yield: 146.52 bushels per acre, 405.24% over county five-year average

Farm Overview: Ty Anderson and father, Tim, and grandfather, Leonard, farm some 12,000 acres, which includes 18 pivots in the southeast corner of Wyoming. The fifth-generation farm was established in 1887. They grow wheat, pinto beans, corn, alfalfa, other mixed-hay crops, some pulse crops and have a small soybean test plot. They sell certified seed wheat, oats and hay millet.

Input Strategy: Seed treated with CruiserMaxx Vibrance, Ascend and Stamina. Fertilizer starter (70 pounds of nitrogen, 20 pounds of phosphorus) followed by 20 pounds of preplant nitrogen was used to aid to desiccate prior crop. At joint or sidedress, applied another 30 pounds nitrogen, 20 pounds sulfur, MAX-IN copper and MAX-IN Ultra ZMB. Diseases controlled with Twinline and Priaxor fungicide.

Biggest Challenge: “We are continuously working to understand if various inputs will provide a higher netting return than our standard practice,” Anderson points out. “If we can make changes to add that extra 5 bushels per acre, and we know our input cost, it really benefits us. It’s important to be flexible, and sometimes you need to think outside the box. We want to know what the best-management practices are for the ground we farm. Some varieties of wheat respond differently to fertility, disease problems, fungicides and growth regulators. Understanding these responses provide for a greater netting return.”

Why Wheat: “The simple answer is that wheat is the main crop grown in this high plains desert area with only 11 inches of rainfall a year. The complex answer is the fact that corn and soybeans have had a huge amount of research dollars dumped into them over the years, and now, it is wheat’s turn.”


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