The Quest for Quality

National Wheat Yield Contest looks beyond bushels for improved milling characteristics.

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Phillip Gross, National Wheat Yield Contest multiple-year, high-yield winner, works in a field of hard red winter wheat, Image by Jim Patrico

Phillip Gross knows the perils of growing too much wheat.

“In the past, there have been varieties that yielded super high in the Pacific Northwest, but, as a result, the milling quality wasn’t that great, and, some of it just wasn’t palatable,” the Warden, Washington, grower recalls.

With a glut of domestic wheat supplies at play, the stakes are too high for wheat growers to make that mistake, he says. “We don’t want to flood the market with cheap feed wheat and lose our edge in the export market.”

That’s why Gross was thrilled when the National Wheat Yield Contest--where he has won top yield for three straight years--added a quality component to the competition in 2018.

And, it’s why he was relieved that his bin-busting entry, which topped out at 202.53 bushels per acre (bpa), received high marks for quality components like grade, test weight, falling number, hardness and 1,000-kernel weight.

“Some people are concerned that if you drive yield, you will do it at the sacrifice of quality,” says Steve Joehl, director of research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG).

As director of the contest, Joehl is also the man who sorted through the 163 wheat entries submitted this year, sent them off for lab analysis and scrutinized the results. His up-close look at the bounty of America’s top wheat producers was heartening, he says.

Of the 163 wheat entries analyzed, only 11 didn’t make Grade 1 or 2, the cutoff for food-grade wheat and to qualify for the contest. Milling quality was high, and, protein levels held strong among even the highest-yielding samples.

“What we’re seeing from these test results is we had really good production of high-quality wheat, and, if I were a miller, I’d be camping out next to every one of these winners asking to buy their wheat,” Joehl says.


The hard truth is American wheat simply doesn’t get exported at the same rates as competitors like Canada, the EU, Russia and Ukraine, notes Todd Hultman, DTN lead analyst.

Some blame lies with the strength of the dollar, which makes American wheat more expensive compared to Canada and the EU. But, geography also plays a role--it’s hard to compete for major wheat importers in North Africa and southeast Asia, when Russia and Ukraine loom so much closer, Hultman notes.

Currency and geography may be beyond farmers’ influence, but, they can control what they grow, Joehl says. “If we’re going to compete in a world market, we’ve got to compete on consistent quality,” he says.

Focusing on improving and fine-tuning wheat quality for the domestic market is also key, says DTN cash grains analyst Mary Kennedy. “Flour mills are precise in what grade factors and protein they need out of both spring wheat and winter wheat to make flour,” she explains. “It is an intricate process, and, every factor matters for the end result in baking bread or making noodles.”

Mill buyers scrutinize components such as protein, moisture content, pesticide residue, mycotoxins, percent flour extraction, test weight, kernel size and other baking indicators such as falling number, hardness and 1,000-kernel weight, Kennedy notes. (See “The Scoop on Wheat Quality,” below, for more details on what each component means.)

The wheat contest tested wheat entries for many of these components this year and will continue to do so in future contests, Joehl says.

“What’s unique about this contest is farmers have to put down every little management practice--planting date, fertility, variety and more,” he explains. “So, every sample we have and its quality results, is correlated to those management practices.”

In just a few years, the contest should be able to use that aggregated data to make interesting conclusions on how each management practice affects crucial milling and baking characteristics like protein and falling number, Joehl says.

“That’s a lot of data power,” he continues.

Those results will be a welcome source of information both to contestants and the larger wheat industry, Gross adds.

“I hope it will really encourage growers to focus more on quality and not just yield by itself,” he says. “Wheat acres are really dwindling, and, in order to keep the markets we do have, we need to make sure that our buyers know that they’re getting a premium quality.”


Wheat can sometimes get short shrift when it comes to crop management. The wheat yield contest was designed to show how the crop can shine when farmers take time to scout and apply fertilizer, nutrients, fungicides and insecticides at just the right time.

Even after supplementing his winter wheat with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur based on carefully timed tissue and soil tests, Gross was astonished at the kernels from his winning winter wheat field.

“The kernel size was just huge--they were humongous and heavy,” he says. “You could take two or three small or semifilled kernels, and fit them in the same area as these big, plump ones. That was a pleasant surprise.”

Like Gross, the contest’s other national yield winners are devoted to their wheat fields. If you go looking for a member of the Horton family in southwest Kansas in the spring or summer, you’ll probably catch at least one of them in a wheat field. Horton Seed Services’ 111.28-bpa irrigated winter wheat field won in its category, placing a whopping 312% above the county average.

When they aren’t pulling tissue samples to track and maintain nutrient levels, they’re counting tillers, kernels per head and plants per row-foot--and analyzing the impact of inputs with yearly field experiments. “We’re out scouting every Monday or Tuesday,” Alec Horton says.

Likewise, Larry Carroll pulls biweekly petiole tissue samples from his northern Oregon spring wheat fields, one of which topped the irrigated spring wheat category at 158.93 bpa, 413% above the county average. He tests each sample and adds any nutrients or micronutrients as needed through his sprayer all season long.

“When that crop asks for something, be prepared,” he says. “It’s going to talk to you; you just have to listen.”

New Ranking Rules in 2019:

This spring, the wheat yield contest will have a new ranking system designed to reflect the acreage and accomplishments of U.S. wheat growers more accurately.

In the past, basing the national winner rankings on the percentage growers yield above their county average has given growers from lower-yielding regions a chance to shine. But, it has also discouraged growers from higher-yielding regions and produced some peculiar rankings. For example, in 2018, two growers who nearly matched the contest’s highest yield of 202.53 bpa (bushels per acre) only ranked third in their categories, because their percentage above the county average wasn’t as high.

For 2019, each category of wheat will have two tiers of winners. One set will be based on raw yield alone. The other will continue to reward growers for percentages above the county average. Each tier will have a different number of winners, too, to reflect actual wheat acreage in the U.S. For example, dryland winter wheat, which accounted for 56% of the 2018 entries, will award first through fifth place in 2019. But, irrigated spring wheat, which only accounted for 5% of the 2018 entries, will only have a single first-place award in 2019.

To see the new ranking system, visit


The wheat contest analyzed wheat entries for seven different quality components.

> Wheat Grade: Grades 1 to 5. To assign grades to wheat samples, the Federal Grain Inspection Service considers test weight, damaged and broken kernels, foreign material and the presence of other types of wheat. Food-grade wheat must be Grade 1 or 2--which also served as the cutoff for the contest. Grades 3 to 5 usually end up as feed.

> Test Weight: A wheat sample’s density in pounds per bushel. Most types of wheat must weigh 58 pounds per bushel or more to make Grade 2 and 60 pounds per bushel for Grade 1. However, hard red spring and white club wheat need only reach 57 pounds per bushel to qualify as Grade 2 and 58 pounds per bushel to reach Grade 1.

> Protein: The percentage of a kernel made of protein by weight. Protein levels are extremely important to grain millers, who generally prefer 12% protein flour. Higher protein content produces more crusty or chewy consistency, desired in pasta and many breads. Lower protein content produces softer flour, better suited for cakes, cookies and pie crusts.

> Moisture: The percentage of a kernel made of water by weight. Grain moisture will affect both storage life span and the milling process.

> 1,000-Kernel Weight: The weight in grams of 1,000 kernels. Shrunken kernels that weigh below 30 grams will yield less flour for millers.

> Falling Number: A measurement of grain’s starch quality, which affects the quality of the flour. Falling numbers above 300 show good starch quality.

> DON: Short for deoxynivalenol, often called vomitoxin. DON is a dangerous mycotoxin produced by Fusarium head blight of wheat, often called head scab. The FDA limits DON content in wheat to 1 part per million (ppm) for human consumption and 5 to 10 ppm for livestock, depending on the type.



Phillip Gross

Warden Hutterian Brethren

Warden, Washington

Variety: LCS Jet from Limagrain at 740,000 seeds/acre

Yield: 202.53 bpa, 73% above the five-year county average

MEET THE FARMERS: Phillip Gross farms with the Warden Hutterian Brethren in central Washington, a large family farm that encompasses roughly 25,000 acres. The farm produces a wide range of dryland and irrigated crops, including potatoes, corn, mint--and wheat. “Wheat is a large part of the farm, where it is an important rotation crop,” Gross explains.

INPUT INSIGHTS: Gross’s contest field got a total nitrogen load of 318 pounds split between the fall, early spring and preflag leaf. He also added phosphate, potassium and sulfur, and 17 acre-inches of irrigation water. Annual scouting and testing have taught him to keep his nitrogen to sulfur ratio close to 10-to-1, Gross says. An infestation of cereal leaf beetle required an insecticide pass, and, the field received two routine fungicide applications to prevent disease. He also used seed treatments and is running experiments this year to evaluate plant growth regulators used in combination with insecticide and fungicide on his wheat seed.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “The majority of our wheat, about 70% of it, is in a limited water situation,” Gross explains. He pulls from the Odessa aquifers, which are declining, so, his water usage is carefully regulated by the state.

WINNING TIP: “Many people try to find silver bullets, and, there aren’t any,” Gross cautions. But, if he has to pick one, it’s staying ahead of plant health. “Once a disease or pest sets in, and, you have to fix the situation, you have already lost yield, and, you are not getting it back,” he says. “That’s why we’re constantly walking fields.”


Travis Freeburg

R&K Farms

Pine Bluffs, Wyoming

Variety: SY Monument from AgriPro at 1 to 1.2 million seeds/acre

Yield: 124.46 bpa, 398% above the five-year county average

MEET THE FARMERS: With his father, Ray, Travis Freeburg helps manage R&K Farms, a farming operation that straddles two states, southeast Wyoming and western Nebraska. They grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat, in addition to running a 1,000-head cow/calf operation.

INPUT INSIGHTS: Although R&K Farms does run pivots, it was the no-till dryland wheat that shone this year, thanks to plentiful rainfall and ideal growing conditions. They took advantage of the unusually high rainfall and doubled their wheat nitrogen applications this year, Freeburg says. The winning field got 130 pounds of N, along with phosphate and micronutrients, and 25 inches of rainfall--10 inches above normal. The field was also sprayed twice with fungicide to control stripe rust, once early in the season and then again at flag leaf. Freeburg credits the crop consultants he works with at Frenchman Valley Coop with helping interpret and use the many soil- and tissue-sampling tests run throughout the growing season.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: “We live in a really terrible hail alley,” Freeburg says. “Storms come over the Rockies and mix with air from the east, and, we get some nasty supercells. Typically, we don’t go a year without losing a percentage of our crop to hail.”

WINNING TIP: “I think the fungicides are, dollar for dollar, our best return on investment,” Freeburg says. “It’s all about keeping that plant as healthy as possible to get its full yield potential.”


Jon Wert

Wert Farms

New England, North Dakota

Variety: LCS Trigger from Limagrain at 1.5 million seeds/acre

Yield: 103.98-bpa field, 126% above the five-year county average

MEET THE FARMERS: Jon Wert is the fifth generation farming Wert Farms, which has been a trailblazer in southwestern North Dakota. “I took over from my father and uncle, who started no-till in 1981,” Wert explains. “Now, our county has pretty much turned into a no-till haven.” Wert grows spring wheat, canola and corn.

INPUT INSIGHTS: Wert’s winning field got off to a bad start after it was planted a month later than preferred, in early May. Fortunately, June delivered 6.5 inches of rainfall, which carried the field through a dry July and August. Wert walked his fields all summer long looking for problems and pulling tissue samples. Annual soil testing let him know he only needed to add 85 pounds of nitrogen at planting to his winning field, along with phosphorus and potassium. He also added a third fungicide pass to keep head scab at bay.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Not only does Wert face a naturally limited annual rainfall, but, he has fought to end a state cloud-seeding program started in western North Dakota in the 1950s. The program aims to reduce damaging hail, but, many local farmers believe it has reduced annual rainfall amounts in the region.

WINNING TIP: Wert credits his farm’s four-decade devotion to no-till with easing the effects of drought and limited rainfall. His winning field boasted 4.7% organic matter compared to the 2% Wert finds on conventionally tilled ground in his region. “No-till absolutely helps hold moisture in the ground,” he says. “We were worried after our contest field didn’t receive any rainfall after July 2, but, there was enough moisture held in the ground to finish it off.”


The Horton Family

Horton Seed Services

Leoti, Kansas

Variety: WB-Cedar from WestBred at 720,000 seeds/acre

Yield: 111.28-bpa field, 312% above the five-year county average

MEET THE FARMERS: The Hortons are building a wheat dynasty in western Kansas. Ken Horton farms with his three sons, Rick, Matt and Alec, and their wives and families. They grow wheat, corn and sorghum, interspersed with fallow periods, in addition to their seed cleaning, treating and sales business. “All of us take part in everything we do to these fields,” Alec Horton says.

INPUT INSIGHTS: The Hortons treated their wheat seed with insecticide and fungicide. The winning field had a summer application of conditioned manure and “fertigation” applications of sulfur and nitrogen, once in the fall and a couple of times in the spring, for a total of 150 pounds of N. Every week, the Hortons scouted and pulled tissue samples, and made sure nitrogen and other nutrient levels were maintained. They’ve found that a 7-to-1 ratio of nitrogen to sulfur builds quality protein and best captures yield potential on their land, Horton says. They also ran two passes of fungicide to control rust diseases and added nine acre-inches of irrigation water.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: The Hortons combat limited rainfall with carefully calibrated seeding rates. They seed well below industry averages--375,000 to 500,000 seeds/acre on their dryland acres. “It makes for more tillers, a more efficient plant, not as much competition, and, you’re not wasting a bunch of moisture up front in fall, so, you can get longer into spring before the plants need a drink,” Horton says.

WINNING TIP: “The brunt of it would be the fertigation and the seed treatments we put on,” Horton says. “All the wheat we grow is treated with the max rate of insecticide, and, we treat the majority of the seed we sell, too.”


Larry Carroll

Holzapfel Ranch

Hermiston, OR

Variety: Expresso from WestBred at 2 million seeds/acre

Yield: 158.93-bpa field, 413% above the five-year county average

MEET THE FARMERS: Larry Carroll, his son and father work 1,800 irrigated acres in north-central Oregon, just across the border from Washington. The three generations of farmers grow corn, wheat, alfalfa and grass seed, using minimum till and irrigation water from the underground Odessa aquifers.

INPUT INSIGHTS: Contrary to its name, Carroll planted his spring wheat in the fall, a benefit of Oregon’s usually mild winters. He disked in 5,000 gallons of green cow manure before planting then applied another 100 pounds of nitrogen in the spring. Every two weeks, he pulled petioles, ran tissue tests and applied micronutrients through his sprayer, as needed. He gave the award-winning field one fungicide pass to ward off powdery mildew and supplemented the field’s scarce rainfall with 24 acre-inches of irrigation.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Keeping water and nutrients available in Carroll’s sandy soils takes a lot of attention and care. “It’s easy to overwater,” he says. “Manure takes two years to break down, so, we want to keep it down there, delivering nitrogen all the time--there’s no reason to push it out of the root zone.”

WINNING TIP: “I’d say attention to detail,” Carroll says. He often supplements the crop in-season with micronutrients like copper, boron or magnesium--all based on his biweekly tissue tests. He also scouts diligently to make sure his irrigation water is timed just right. “Water usage at flowering time will make or break a wheat kernel,” he says.


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