Jochum Wiersma inspects a wheat test plot.
Jochum Wiersma inspects a wheat test plot.

After decades of slow but steady increases in yield, wheat production could be poised to head one of three different directions—having major leaps in productivity, stalling out at its latest plateau or collapsing under competing crop income potential and new disease threats.

“The money that has been put into wheat research to date has not been enough to get a huge increase in productivity,” suggested Jane DeMarchi, director of research, National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). “Charted from the 1960s, wheat yields have gone up slowly. Surprisingly, they have gone up more globally than in the U.S.”

Perhaps nowhere have they gone up faster than in the British Isles and Europe. While domestic yield averages have struggled to reach the 40 to 50 bushel range, yields in Europe have long been three to four times higher. Over the past 20 years intensive wheat production has been introduced in the eastern U.S., and yields have risen rapidly in select areas. Now those techniques are spreading, thanks in no small part to European-trained expertise, such as wheat production evangelist Phil Needham, Needham Ag Technologies, and other aggressive input suppliers who have helped promote the ideas.

“In the late 1980s, Billy Joe Miles, Kentucky-based Miles Farm Service, assembled a team of European agronomists, including myself, to introduce European wheat management practices to his customers,” recalled Needham. “I worked for him for 17 years, and we contributed to doubling the state wheat yield. According to USDA data, the Kentucky wheat yield averaged 71 bushels per acre in 2006 and 2008, a far cry from the low 30’s in the early 1980s. A lot of those same techniques have expanded into Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois.”

Needham has since taken the concepts and inputs and is applying them throughout the wheat belt from Texas to North Dakota. For Hefty Seeds dealer, crop farmer and Needham convert, Wayne Drangsholt, Mohall, N.D., many wheat yield limitations have been self-imposed.

“Farmers are reluctant to invest in seed, so there isn’t a lot of money generated by seed companies,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of money put into public research, and what money there is has been used to breed defensive varieties that go well with minimal management. Because the universities haven’t charged much in the way of royalties, it’s hard for private wheat breeders to compete and little market for more aggressive varieties.”

Options in Growing Wheat

As drought-tolerant corn hybrids are released, more dryland wheat production will come under even greater pressure. Unless wheat producers can see increased yield and quality improvements similar to corn, there will be little reason to grow it. Jochum Wiersma, small grains specialist, University of Minnesota, said such improvements don’t have to wait for new technologies. At the same time, he suggested matching European yields might be over reaching.

Wiersma knows first-hand about European conditions and management techniques, having been raised and educated to the Masters degree level in the Netherlands. He noted that European producers have a longer, cooler summer that is ideal for winter wheat growth. They also produce lower protein, feed grain wheat versus high protein baking wheat. Breeding for protein limits yield potential.

Higher yields equal higher returns, which equal incentives to fine tune the crop. It is one reason that Europeans were quicker to adopt multiple fungicide applications as well as multiple applications of nitrogen.

Fine tuning the crop is what Wiersma and Needham say is needed. Essentially, that boils down to a better stand, timely, uniform and appropriate applications of nutrients and crop protectants and quality seed.

Wheat Farmers at a Decision PointWhen attention is paid to these practices, it pays, said Drangsholt. He has seen the results on his farm and that of his customers as their yields have doubled the county average of 30 to 40 bushels per acre. “Do the little things right, and everything adds up,” he said. “Phil showed us that you have to do everything just right.”

New Techniques Pay Off

Intensive techniques pay off well when wheat prices are high, but also when they are low. “When wheat was $3 per bushel, we could invest $3 an acre and get a $30 return,” said Drangsholt. “Even in a year like this where we are being flooded out, one of my top growers will collect $300 an acre while his neighbors collect $150 because of his proven yield average.”

Wiersma is excited about the yield increases he has seen in northwest Minnesota where he is located. He says growers there are much closer to Europeans in their fertilizer and fungicide applications than even 10 years ago. As a result, he can cite running three-year average increases of 1.5 bushels per acre for 15 years.

“We’ve gone from 30 bushels per acre to 55 bushels per acre in northwest Minnesota in the past 15 years,” said Wiersma. “On a percentage basis, that rivals or exceeds corn yield increases over that same time period. The last couple years we had ideal planting and growing conditions and saw yields as high as 120 bushels per acre.”

Drangsholt hopes to see yields jump again with recent investments in wheat seed breeding by companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience. Although large multi-nationals have made forays into developing hybrid wheat in the past and then withdrawn, the North Dakota farmer/dealer hopes this time will be different, as does NAWG.

“We definitely have expectations for improvements in productivity with research underway,” said DeMarchi. “Biotech wheat will be a long time in the future, but work is proceeding on conventional wheat that will benefit yield.”

She cited certified seed use in the eastern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest as a major reason for their higher yield averages. “If growers perceive a yield value in their seed, they are more likely to invest more to reach those yields,” she said. “Growers need to recognize that for companies to keep investing in wheat, the companies have to get a return on their investment.

Drangsholt said his growers aren’t waiting for new varieties to change practices. “We have guys doing soil tests who never did them before,” he said. “Last year we helped some customers with topdressing nitrogen, and they gained a point and a half in protein. That netted them an extra $70 per acre. Once you get a customer who trusts that what you recommend is in his best interest, he will follow you to hell.”

UG99 Worries Ahead

Even with the yield boosts Drangsholt and Wiersma are seeing, there is a major cloud on the horizon. Like the rains that have drowned out yield expectations in Drangsholt’s trade territory this year, UG99, a rust disease spreading rapidly around the world, could cancel out hoped for higher productivity in the future. Although U.S. growers have access to effective fungicides, resistant wheat varieties are needed.

“The USDA has been proactive in recognizing UG99 as a global security issue as well as a potential production issue for U.S. farmers,” said DeMarchi. “We don’t have much seed resistance yet, but we have identified the genes that will provide resistance, and now we are working to get those genes into U.S. varieties.”

The question is whether this work will continue to be funded. The recent removal of earmark funded projects in federal budget actions eliminated key funding for work at Kansas State University. At a time when wheat needs more funding than ever simply to complete sequencing of the genome, public funding is more at question than ever.

In the meantime, Wiersma encouraged input suppliers to help educate their growers to the potential that already exists and to encourage practices that will pay…when they will pay. “If we continue to treat wheat like the poor cousin, it will be the poor cousin,” he said.