Inaugural Wheat Contest

Winners Thrust Sky-High Wheat Yields Into Public Eye

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The winners of the inaugural National Wheat Yield Contest used intensive management to pump out some whopper yields in 2016. John Weinand, Hazen, North Dakota, pictured here, is one of the farmers that entered and placed in the contest. (DTN photo by John Borge)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- From central Michigan to the plains of western Kansas and the river-fed acres of northern Oregon, the winners of the inaugural National Wheat Yield Contest share a common belief: Give wheat its due and it will return the favor.

"Wheat has always been the forgotten crop," said Rick Horton, who farms dryland wheat, milo and corn in Leoti, Kansas, with his father, two brothers and uncle under Horton Seed Services. "People put it in the ground and walk away and come back in June and cut it. But that's not what it takes to be profitable with wheat now."

Horton pushed 33 acres of a winter wheat variety, Joe, developed by the Kansas Wheat Association, to an average yield of 118 bushels per acre (bpa). Nearly 2 acres of that field hit 127.94 bpa, a whopping 374% above his county's five-year average of 27 bpa, which earned him first place in the dryland winter wheat category.

The overall yield winner, Phillip Gross of Wardan, Washington, reached 192.85 bpa with an irrigated winter wheat variety from WestBred called Keldin.

The numbers are eye-opening, and that's exactly what contest organizers and the farmers who entered hope to do, said Dan Mills, a northern Oregon farmer. He placed first in the irrigated spring wheat category with a WestBred variety called Solano, which yielded 146.5 bpa, 112% above the five-year average yield of Umatilla County, where he farms. "We're just getting to the upper end of what those varieties will yield," he said. "I think in the wheat world, we've been pretty well stuck in the same groove, but the varieties are actually doing so much better."

The contest, organized by the National Wheat Foundation, is the first of its kind for wheat growers nationally. The goal is to spur farmer innovation and encourage more intensive crop management in an oft-neglected industry, said Steve Joehl, director of research and technology for the National Association of Wheat Growers. "We really hope to get a technology and information transfer between farmers, aided by the contest," he told DTN.

Many wheat growers have long been reluctant to buy new, certified wheat seed each year, when saved seed is available, or put resources into a low-priced crop, he noted. "But farmers need to understand that they've got to drive down cost per bushel by increasing productivity," just as corn and soybean growers do, Joehl said.

TO EACH HIS OWN

The vast regional differences between wheat growers in the U.S. means the winners showcased entirely different methods of growing bin-busting wheat crops, noted David Eickholt, whose family has grown Michigan Certified seed wheat since the 1940s. His dryland winter wheat field hit 147.74 bpa, 117% above his county average, which earned him fifth place in that category.

The Eickholts used a novel seeding technique this year that involved lightly working 50 pounds of seed per acre in during fall fertilizer applications, before seeding the rest of the crop. They also routinely seed 100 pounds, north to south, and another 100 pounds, east to west. The result is a thick, lush stand -- "It looks like a carpet," David said -- that is only possible in a region like central Michigan, parts of which received nearly 20 inches of rainfall from March through August this year.

Mills' northern Oregon spring wheat field was seeded with a goal of 150 pounds per acre, a heavy population carefully calculated with his field manager, Delywin Hendrickson. Like the Eickholts, moisture is more certain for Mills, thanks to plentiful irrigation from the Columbia River. His irrigator, Ted Simmons, puts a range of 18 to 24 inches of water on his wheat crops each year.

Planting population is equally important to the Hortons in western Kansas, but their approach is necessarily on the opposite end of the seeding scale. Their winning dryland wheat field was seeded at just 28 pounds per acre, giving each wheat plant a chance to maximize often scarce local rainfall, Horton said. This year, a rare season of plentiful moisture in the Southern Plains proved this method pays under a variety of environmental conditions.

The Hortons take a data-driven approach to picking the right seeding rate each year. "Once a week, when spring hits, we're out in the field documenting how all our varieties react to different environmental conditions, how much each is tillering, and the average head size, so we know how many heads per foot to shoot for," he said.

Contest organizers designed the National Wheat Yield Contest specifically to account for these regional differences, Joehl said. In addition to the overall yield winner, the contest recognized national winners, like Horton and Mills, whose wheat earned the highest percentages above the county average in four categories of wheat: irrigated winter, dryland winter, irrigated spring and dryland spring.

In the future, organizers hope to break the contest down into regional categories and let growers compete within those on more equal footing, Joehl said. But the contest will need more entrants -- at least 1,000 -- before that is possible, he said. This year, the contest yielded 169 entries, 67 of which were actually taken to harvest and submitted, which surpassed their first-year expectations, he added.

GIVING WHEAT ITS DUE

In addition to fine-tuning planting populations, the yield winners aggressively soil sample and supplement their wheat crops, mostly with nitrogen. Over the course of fall, spring and in-season applications, Eickholt estimates his winning wheat crop got 160 pounds of nitrogen, as much as a corn crop. He also keeps potash levels high, adds some micronutrients and uses a growth regulator to keep his thick stand in check. Fungicides and insecticides are part of the package, too.

Horton relied on conditioned cattle manure from a local feedlot, as well as seed treatments, an insecticide treatment and two fungicide treatments to stave off disease, such as the stripe rust that roared through the Great Plains this year.

Both Horton and Eickholt raise seed wheat, which requires more intensive management, but Horton is quick to endorse this strategy for all wheat production. "We probably manage it more than most," he said. "But that's what we do to the rest of our crops for them to be profitable, so why should wheat be any different?"

For Eickholt, the challenge of pushing wheat yields is as much about pleasure as it is profits. "I view farming as nothing but an experiment," he said. "We try something different every year. I've entered soybean contests, and I've entered corn contests. So why not wheat?"

See the full list of contest winners here: http://wheatfoundation.org

The 2017 National Wheat Yield Contest is open for submissions, starting Dec. 1. See the details here: http://bit.ly/….

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

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Emily Unglesbee