DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- The first time I took my 4-H ewe to the Illinois State Fair, I stood dead last in the class. My father had warned me it might happen, but he'd also said it was the only way we'd know where we stood in the industry and what steps we needed to make our flock better.
We don't celebrate losses very often in this competitive world, but I've remembered that lesson far more than the trophies we hauled home in later years. I thought about it again several weeks ago when I sat down with leaders of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) to talk about their new wheat yield contest.
After more than a 20-year absence, the National Wheat Yield Contest is being relaunched. Hosted by the National Wheat Foundation, the contest is being promoted to drive innovation in the industry, transfer ideas and knowledge between growers, encourage the use of available technology and identify and honor top wheat growers across the U.S. There are a few states with wheat yield contests, but this will be national in scope.
The wheat industry needs a nudge. Average yields across all classes came in around 44 bushels per acre (bpa) in 2015, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NAS). Average yields over the past few years have declined slightly (with the exception of some states and certain classes) as wheat has been pushed to more marginal acres in favor of corn and soybeans.
"Too many acres are planted on hope," says Dusty Tallman, immediate past chairman of the National Wheat Foundation. The Colorado grower says wheat farmers in his area are often reluctant to put more money into a crop after a tough winter or if they are worried about getting spring rains.
"The contest was born out of frustration that more growers aren't willing to use the technologies available to them today," Tallman added. For example, nearly 50% of the wheat planted in the U.S. today is still brown bag or bin-run wheat, he noted.
Other commodity organizations have successfully used contests to spur yield improvements. Kip Cullers became a soybean icon when he pulled a 160.6 bpa yield from the rugged, red clay soils of Southwest Missouri. Virginia corn farmer David Hula's recent world record of 532 bpa in the 2015 National Corn Yield Contest has planted more than a few seeds of "how can I produce more" within other farmers.
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While all the practices these yield champions use may not fit every acre, there are lessons to be learned, just as I learned in the livestock show ring all those years ago. Our gains were mostly made through genetic improvements, developing better rations and more attention to management. Those are the same general improvements crop growers find themselves adopting when scrutinizing production techniques and evaluating yield contest winner tactics.
Hugh Whaley, NAWG director of corporate relations, said the goal of the new wheat contest is to encourage growers to put the similar emphasis on the wheat crop as they do other cash commodities. "It will take time to influence the overall national yield, but the information and techniques that come out of this will eventually be seen," Whaley said.
"We've attempted to make the contest as simple as possible to encourage growers to participate," Whaley added. There are two primary competition categories broken out into four areas: winter wheat, dryland; winter wheat irrigated; spring wheat, dryland; and spring wheat irrigated. Rules and entry information can be found at www.wheatworld.org. Click on the National Wheat Yield Contest logo.
An entry must be 5 acres or larger of a certified or branded wheat seed. The field can be larger than 5 acres and the best 5 acres selected from within it. Entrants must be a producer and member of their recognized state wheat grower association. If your state doesn't have wheat grower association, you must be a member of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
There's still time to enter this year. All entries and harvest report forms, weigh tickets and fee payments must be completed and submitted electronically. No paper entry and harvest forms or checks will be accepted. There's an entry fee of $100 per entry if entered by April 1 (winter wheat) or June 15 (spring wheat). Fees increase to $125 for entries submitted after these dates and by May 1 (winter wheat) and Aug. 1 (spring wheat).
Other contest requirements include:
-- Enter as an individual.
-- Be at least 14 years old at time of entry.
-- Members can enter multiple times and in either or both the winter and spring wheat categories, but can win only one national award.
-- Multiple family members or partners from the same operation may enter the contest separately, so long as they actively participate in the operation of the farm, have an individual state or NAWG membership.
The top five winners from each category will be recognized nationally, including at the 2017 Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas, March 2-4.
The wheat fields I've looked at this so far look good and I'm looking forward to the results of this first contest year to see where U.S. wheat really stands.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.firstname.lastname@example.org
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