Classes of Wheat Determine Potential

Take a Class in Wheat

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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More intentional management of wheat is driving crop performance, Matt Wehmeyer says. (Jason Jenkins)

The earth wakes early each spring at Wehmeyer Farms, near Mascoutah, Illinois. Soft red winter wheat unfurls after its winter's nap in a sea of green and long before most crop seeds meet the furrow.

Illinois once led the nation in wheat production. The chances of it regaining that mid-1880s dominance are unlikely. But, some farmers that seeded wheat when prices spiked in 2022 gained a renewed appreciation for growing it, observes Matt Wehmeyer, president of AgriMAXX Wheat Co.

"With prices retracting this past fall, there were geographies where (planted) wheat acres were softer," he says. "Still, some areas had a fantastic yielding crop in 2023, which gave growers the motivation and incentive to do a repeat. Two years ago, it was a national push to plant, whereas this winter, it was more regional."

WHERE WHEAT STILL REIGNS

States such as Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas will probably always lead in wheat acreage, says Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations of Kansas Wheat. "U.S. Wheat Associates is supported by 17 state wheat commissions, and there are many other states with pockets of important production," Harries says. Wheat is grown in 42 of the U.S. states and in nearly every region on six continents around the world, according to National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) statistics.

What makes wheat unique is that it has six distinct classes that result in specific end uses. Millers and bakers are the alchemists of agriculture, creating consistent and dependable foodstuffs from protein, hardness levels, color and other properties that differ by class and can be influenced by management and growing season.

It's been 150 years since Mennonite immigrants introduced a winter wheat variety called Turkey Red to Kansas. "Prior to that, Kansas farmers had planted spring wheat, and it wasn't faring very well," Harries explains. "Turkey Red was a turning point that led to an entire wheat infrastructure -- from railroads to mills."

Today, wheat is part of an "ensemble" of crops that include corn, soybean, sorghum and cotton. "But, wheat is still a good fit because it provides benefits to the other crops in the rotation," he says. "It has moisture-conserving properties because of the straw. It's a good cover crop to prevent wind erosion. It's well-documented that corn yields better after wheat," Harries says.

YIELD GAINS

While the National Wheat Foundation's (NWF) yield contest is a good indication of yield potential, AgriMAXX president Wehmeyer likes to point to the 2023 winter wheat season to prove the uptick is mainstream.

According to USDA's "Small Grains Annual Summary," released Sept. 29, 2023, record winter wheat high yields were estimated in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The new state average wheat yield estimate for Illinois is 87 bushels per acre (bpa), up from 79 bpa last year. Several counties are expected to exceed the 100 bpa average.

The Wehmeyer family has a vested interest in cheerleading the crop. Dale and Lisa Wehmeyer founded a family-owned seed company in 1995 after Dale had managed the University of Missouri Foundation Seed Program. They extended the investment in 2009 by launching AgriMAXX Wheat, a high-performance wheat seed company. Their children, Matt, Mark and Kristen Wehmeyer are all involved in helping run the seed business and/or farming operations.

This year, they welcomed more growers into the company's 100-bpa, 125-bpa and 150-bpa yield clubs. Matt's 125.72 bpa entry in the National Wheat Yield Contest gained him a second-place state win.

"Yield is still king," he says. "But, there's been so much innovation put into wheat genetics over the last five years, and it is starting to bring another level of yield potential, which is exciting."

GETTING INTENTIONAL

Farmers are also managing wheat more like corn, he says. "I like to say we aren't seeing intensive management as much as intentional management.

"Growers are more intentional with regard to populations, planting depths, timing, nitrogen, disease management -- all the things that make a crop perform," he adds. "That's really showing up in yields."

Despite some tough weather years on the High Plains, Harries says crops such as wheat and sorghum have an edge over more water-intensive crops. That's a consideration as water rights intensify. Add the conservation aspects of growing wheat into the equation and the fact that wheat is still a staple in the pantry.

Harries sees even more diversification in the crop as specialty wheats emerge and gain traction. Hard winter wheat that has protein levels comparable to spring wheat and varieties with lower glycemic indexes to make wheat an even better choice for people with diabetes are two examples, he notes.

"Wheat may be viewed as a commodity, but it is really a very diverse food ingredient. We are unlocking a lot of potential in each of the classes of wheat that will be exciting going forward," Harries says.

CLASSES OF WHEAT

Hard Red Winter:

Growing Region: Great Plains (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas), Pacific Northwest, California and scattered in other states (most widely grown class)

Use: bread and all-purpose flour. Versatile, with excellent milling and baking characteristics for breads baked in a pan, flatbreads, hard rolls, some types of Asian (ramen-style) noodles, general-purpose flour and cereal

Qualities: medium to high protein of 10 to 13%, medium hard endosperm, red bran, medium gluten content and mellow gluten

Production: 18.4 MMT (million metric tons) (Acreage estimates reflect USDA five-year average.)

Hard Red Spring:

Growing Region: Northern states such as Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington

Use: "designer" wheat foods like hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels, pizza dough and as an improver for flour blends

Qualities: high protein of 12 to 15%, hard endosperm, red bran, strong gluten and high water absorption

Production: 12.5 MMT

Soft Red Winter:

Growing Region: Eastern third of the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River

Use: cakes, cookies, crackers and other confectionery products, adding value to the miller and baker as a blending wheat

Qualities: low protein of 8.5 to 10.5%, soft endosperm, red bran and weak gluten

Production: 9.0 MMT

Soft White:

Growing Region: Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Utah) and some in Michigan

Use: provides whiter and brighter product for cakes, pastries, Asian-style noodles and Middle Eastern flatbreads

Qualities: low protein of 8.5 to 10.5%, low moisture and weak gluten

Production: 6.3 MMT

Hard White:

Growing Region: Central Plains (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska), California, Idaho and Montana

Use: Asian noodles, tortillas, flatbreads and high extraction applications such as white, whole wheat pan breads

Qualities: medium to high protein content of 10 to 14%, hard endosperm, white bran

Production: 0.7 MMT

Durum:

Growing Region: Montana, North Dakota and some acreage in Arizona, California and South Dakota

Use: pasta, couscous and some Mediterranean breads (the hardest of all wheats with rich amber color)

Qualities: high protein content of 12 to 15%, yellow endosperm and white bran

Production: 1.6 MMT

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-- Sources: U.S. Wheat Associates (https://uswheat.org/…), Wheat Foods Council (https://wheatfoods.org/…), Kansas Wheat (https://eatwheat.org/…), National Association of Wheat Growers (https://wheatworld.org/…), National Wheat Foundation (https://wheatfoundation.org/…)

-- Follow the latest from Pamela Smith, Senior Crops Editor, by visiting the Production Blogs at https://www.dtnpf.com/… or following her on X (formerly Twitter) @PamSmithDTN

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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