Better Wheat by Design

July 27, 2012 10:28 PM
Better Wheat by Design

Quality means high yields and market opportunities

The names are nothing you’d remember. Only someone in a white lab coat with a terse tone in their voice could rattle off "5187J" or "AGS-2035" as though they were members of the family. The notes on the clipboard read "good for cracker use" and "concerning cookie height, but very good flour profile." Somewhere among the flour yield percentages, the softness equivalent scores and the cookie spread diameters is wheat’s future.
At dirt level, growing wheat might seem like a million mental miles away from a corporate food manufacturer’s lab. However, cookies, bread and pasta need to be part of the farmer’s variety selection process if wheat is going to compete for equitable future profit, riding shotgun with corn and soybeans, says Ben Handcock of the Wheat Quality Council (WQC).
Handcock’s organization is the go-to source for wheat varieties that have the quality preferred by domestic buyers. "Universities and private companies submit varieties of advanced wheat lines they would like to release. We grow the variety samples and run tests for milling and baking quality on all six classes of wheat and provide this information to our members,
such as ADM, Horizon Milling/Cargill, ConAgra, Bimbo and General Mills," he says.
WQC also helps select varieties and collect samples for a U.S. Wheat
Associates (USW) program called the Overseas Varietal Analysis. As an
export marketing group that is funded by checkoff dollars from 19 state wheat commissions, USW sends flour samples to cooperating customers overseas for quality analysis. "This way, our overseas customers have a voice about the varieties of wheat being developed here in the U.S. for their products," says Steve Mercer, spokesperson for USW.
So as not to be misunderstood, WQC’s Handcock says his group doesn’t have any authority over which varieties get released—they just tell about the specific characteristics of varieties in a particular wheat class, such as hard red winter wheat.
"We compare these varieties [in their respective classes] against each other. For example, take the hard red winter wheat varieties from Texas to South Dakota. We send flour out to
all the milling companies, universities and private bake labs. These are our cooperators and they do it [lab testing] for free because they want to know what’s coming down the chain
in the next three to five years," Handcock says. "Whichever variety passes within the general consensus in five years or so, that’s usually the No. 1 variety in the state for which it’s adapted."
Finally, this information is exchanged with the various state wheat commissions, which create lists of recommendations that help farmers choose varieties to grow for the coming year.

Baking quality or yield?

"We are starting to pay more attention to the quality of the product that we want to produce—the milling, baking and protein quality of each variety," says farmer Shane Ohlde of family-operated Ohlde Seed Farms in northeastern Kansas. "We have to be conscious of what our end users want. They want higher-protein wheat and
a strong milling and baking quality."
Not discounting the miller’s, baker’s and processor’s needs, Ohlde also sees the reality from the producer’s side. "Some of the state’s leading performers aren’t the highest [performers] in milling, baking and protein. We can’t always release high-protein wheat varieties because we’ll sacrifice yields. But if we produce too much low quality, then certain areas will have a lower basis because the buying isn’t as strong from that area. It’s kind of a balancing act. What’s going to give our customers the most toward their bottom line?" Ohlde says.
What isn’t lost upon the baker’s market is the quality that you get from certified seed varieties, says WQC’s Hancock. "Millers always want high flour yield—typically, that’s a big kernel. You don’t always get as much flour yield [with bin-run seed] because there isn’t as much flour in the kernel," he adds.
A Kansas State University study showed that winter wheat yields are influenced by the quality of planted seeds. "Seed size appears to be the most important single characteristic, but test weight and protein per seed are also important," researchers said.
Ohlde has a different take. "We hear a lot of people talk about seed size.
But we look more at test weight instead of size. The density is more important. The heavier the test weight, the better the quality."
Whether it’s size or test weight, Tom Lutgen of Star Seed, Inc., knows about the benefits of planting certified seed. As a member of AGSECO, the regional wheat marketing group, he says that this past year, AGSECO researched certified seed versus
farmer-saved seed. "We saw a 4 bu. to 5 bu. per acre yield advantage. Simply due to the stricter standards on purity and quality of a certified product, we got a great yield return," he says.
If planting certified seed is a short-circuit way to increase yields, why is it estimated that only 20% of Kansas wheat acres are planted with it?
According to Handcock, old habits like planting bin-run or "lay-aside" seed die hard. It can also be attributed to tradition or the fact that wheat is treated as a low-input-cost crop by the farmer. Others say it is lack of enforcement of the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act, which says it is not legal to buy, sell or trade a PVP-protected variety or put it in the ground without doing the legal paperwork. Maybe it’s simply the perceived cost.

Price and value.

Isn’t it cheaper, and therefore more profitable to plant farmer-saved seed from a certified variety the following year or two?
Not according to Handcock. "Yields typically start declining and the plant characteristics can change," he says.
A three-year study in central Oklahoma by Jeff Edwards, small grains Extension specialist, and Eugene Krenzer Jr., retired wheat specialist at Oklahoma State University, might explain why. In the Southern Plains, it’s a common practice to graze wheat as well as combine the grain. The authors say that since harvesting wheat grain isn’t necessarily the primary objective, any weed seed in the mix could be considered an added forage benefit.
In a direct comparison, they found that certified seed sources generally contain less foreign material and fewer weed seeds and had higher field germination percentages than farmer-saved seed. If farmers use quality control measures similar to those required for certified seed, farmer-saved wheat seed can produce forage and grain yield comparable to that of certified seed, they concluded.
Still, if you’re not checking out the new certified wheat varieties, you’re simply leaving money on the table, Edwards says. "The bottom line is that you can still plant certified seed for about the cost of 1 bu. per acre of wheat," he reasons. "For most producers, the better quality of the certified seed will certainly produce more than a bushel per acre in improved yield."
Since wheat is such a flexible crop with broad market appeal, what’s holding it back from being more profitable for more producers? A big yield bump in the large arid regions of wheat growing country, according to WQC’s Handcock. "Out there, there’s no money in wheat," he says. And yet, much is riding on new discoveries.
"All the big [breeding research] companies have been here before, they left, and now they’re back again," Handcock says. "The only reason they’re back is they say they can raise yields by doing conventional breeding with some new techniques. Biotech wheat research is the reason they’re here." The opportunity to design a better wheat plant and hoped-for success is the reason they’ll stay.

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