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Published November 01, 2010, 12:13 PM

North Dakota tops Kansas for wheat crown

North Dakota again leads the nation in wheat production, besting Kansas by 15 million bushels, according to the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

By: Stephen J. Lee,

North Dakota again leads the nation in wheat production, besting Kansas by 15 million bushels, according to the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

It’s the second consecutive year the state beat Kansas for the crown of wheat king, the Commission reported last week, based on figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

All spring, winter and durum wheat harvested in North Dakota this year totaled 375 million bushels, just below the record — since at least 1992 — of 377 million bushels produced last year. Kansas’ crop was pegged at 360 million bushels this year, pretty much all of it hard red winter wheat; that was down from about 370 million bushels in 2009.

One of the big reasons for the increased production recently in the state, despite fewer acres planted, is jumping yields, said Fran Leiphon, a Crary, N.D., farmer who is on the board of the Wheat Commission.

Average yield

The average wheat yield this year will be about 44.6 bushels an acre, barely lower than last year’s record 44.8 bushels.

The past two years represent a big leap — a full 32 percent — over the previous decade’s average yields. In the 10 years from 1999-2008, the state’s growers averaged 33.4 bushels an acre.

“Probably the biggest issue is that the last couple years, there has been some pretty good moisture in western North Dakota, where the majority of the (state’s) acres are,” Leiphon said Sunday. “They have had some very good yields, and that brings up the whole average.”

The Red River Valley’s growers get much bigger yields than the rest of the state — many reported 60 to 70 bushels an acre this year in spring wheat — but have planted fewer acres to wheat the past five years, as corn, soybeans and edible beans have competed well for acres because of prices and growing conditions favoring those crops.

This year, only 8.53 million acres in the state produced spring, winter and durum wheat, about the same as last year but well below the 9 million and more acres planted every year a decade ago, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Office in Fargo, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wheat farmers, like growers of other commodities, provide a self-fulfilling prophecy by paying back some of their wheat returns in a “check-off” that pays for research into making better seed varieties and farming practices.

The Wheat Commission, in fact, raised their check-off several years ago to 1.5 cents per bushel sold. It means a total of $3.45 million, in theory, from this year’s crop, depending on when farmers sell their wheat and at what price.

The checkoff money goes to fund the Commission’s staff and marketing efforts, such as bringing in exporters to tour the state, and toward research at North Dakota State University. Part of it goes to North Dakota Grain Growers Association, which includes barley growers (most of whom grow wheat, too, of coure) and the U.S. Wheat Associates, to promote wheat, Leiphon said.

Some farmers opt out of paying the check off, which amounts to about 8 percent of the total crop, and the total possible check off, Leiphon said.

The quality of spring wheat was higher this year, as protein levels came back up to about normal, near the 14-percent standard loved by the nation’s millers and bakers, Leiphon said. Last year, the weather and perhaps too little fertilizer applied by growers led to very low protein levels, which led to much lower prices to farmers because of discounts by buyers.

As is the case with many crops this year, not only are production and per-acre yields high, but prices also are better than good for growers.

On Friday at area grain elevators, spring wheat, at 14 percent protein, was worth an average of $7.12 a bushel, well above normal, according to an Agweek survey.

North Dakota is known for its hard red spring wheat, while Kansas majors in hard red winter wheat, planted in the fall.

North Dakota grows more than half the nation’s durum wheat, used to make pasta, and last year harvested about 61 million bushels.

Winter wheat is a minor crop in the state, amounting to about 25 million bushels each of the past few years.

At current prices, this year’s spring wheat crop would be worth more than $2 billion. But much of the crop, of course, likely will be sold at lower prices due to marketing needs of growers to lock in prices early.

The Wheat Commission will hold a state-wide meeting in December in Grand Forks at the Alerus Center, Leiphon said.