Record run for spring wheat

Jerry Kruger, a long-time Warren, Minn., wheat farmer, remembers when a spring wheat crop that yielded 40 bushels per acre was cause for celebration.

Jerry Kruger, a long-time Warren, Minn., wheat farmer, remembers when a spring wheat crop that yielded 40 bushels per acre was cause for celebration.

Today, 40 bushels per acre would be a big disappointment. This year, as in most of the past few years, many farmers in his state harvested spring wheat crops that yielded 50 or more bushels per acre.

"They're a lot higher than they used to be," he says of yields.

That's particularly true the past five years. Spring wheat is on a superb multi-year run in the Upper Midwest, with farmers in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana enjoying record and near-record yields again this year. Though production suffered in 2011 because of an extremely wet spring, average yields in 2010, 2012, 2013 and again this year were the highest ever for many farmers.

Credit a combination of factors, including favorable weather and what one wheat industry official calls "a real team effort" from scientists, farmers and others.


The run of strong wheat yields is a big deal in the Upper Midwest, which dominates U.S. production of spring wheat, a crop used to make bread and to blend with other, lower-protein wheat. North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of spring wheat. South Dakota and Montana are major producers, too. The crop also is popular in parts of Minnesota, particularly the northwest corner of the state.

North Dakota and South Dakota enjoyed record spring wheat yields this year, with Montana and Minnesota recording near-record yields, according to preliminary numbers from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NASS is fine-tuning its 2014 numbers for the four states. But revisions, if any, almost certainly would be minor, says Darin Jantzi, North Dakota state statistician.

"It's safe to say that yields were high again this year," he says.

Even small yield increases can put big bucks into the region's economy.

In North Dakota alone, farmers harvested 6.2 million acres of spring wheat this year. NASS estimates the average yield at 47.5 bushels an acre, one bushel higher than a year ago. That extra bushel per acre gives North Dakota farmers an additional 6.2 million bushels, which are worth roughly $30 million at current prices.

Future planting

The run of strong wheat yields comes at an important time for the area's wheat industry. Other crops, particularly corn and soybeans, have become more popular, reducing the amount of spring wheat raised in the Upper Midwest. Younger farmers, who watched corn and soybean prices soar in recent years, were especially impressed by those two crops.


But strong wheat yields again this year could draw more attention to the crop, ag officials say.

"This might stimulate some interest," especially with the big decline in corn and soybean prices, says Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

Informal conversations he's had with farmers in recent weeks indicate more wheat could be planted next spring, he says.

Of course, "As one farmer told me, 'There's a long ways until the (seed) drills hit the dirt,'" he adds.

No guarantee of profit

A few caveats are in order:

• Statewide averages mask big variations in yields from county to county and farm to farm. Every year, some farmers have better-than-average yields, others below-average yields. Even something as seemingly small as a localized thundershower -- one that dumps an inch of rain at the right or wrong time on one farm, but misses an adjacent farm -- can make a big difference.

• High-yielding spring wheat fields typically produce crops with relatively low protein content. Low-protein wheat often carries price reductions, sometimes severe.


• Yields of winter wheat and durum wheat, which also are grown in parts of the Upper Midwest, haven't been as consistently good as those of spring wheat. That reflects where and when those crops are raised, and difficulties in developing varieties of those crops that resist crop disease.

• The trend line, or general statistical pattern over time, of yields for other crops, including corn and soybeans, is rising, too. New varieties and improved farming practices are benefiting those crops, just as they're helping spring wheat.

• Good yields don't guarantee profits. Expenses, overall grain prices and the quality of harvested grain -- poor quality leads to price reductions -- play a crucial role in profitability, too. Wet harvest conditions this year hurt quality, sometimes badly, in parts of the Upper Midwest.

"We've had some black-and-blue marks," Fisher says.

In Montana, "Our quality is very poor, generally speaking," says Bing Von Bergen, a Moccasin, Mont., wheat farmer and immediate past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

Farmers in South Dakota and Montana also say their wheat suffered from wet weather in August and early September.

Despite the caveats, the run of high spring wheat yields is definitely a good thing.

"You can't sell the bushels if you don't have them," says Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.Cool summers were crucial


Farmers' success or failure always hinges on the elements, and cooperative weather played a huge, necessary role in the recent run of strong spring wheat yields.

Wheat, a cool-season grass, fares best when it avoids severe mid-summer heat. So, the region's spring wheat has thrived in recent cool summers.

Generally plentiful subsoil moisture, which growing wheat plants were able to tap, was a huge help, too, farmers say.

Spring wheat also caught a break in 2012, which brought mid-summer drought. The unusually early spring that year allowed the crop to be planted several weeks sooner than usual and then to mature before drought worsened.

But other factors, what Fisher calls "a real team effort," contribute to the great run of spring wheat yields. They include:

• New varieties yield more and better resist yield-reducing crop disease.

For instance, new varieties tend to stay green longer than the old ones during hot weather, which helps yields, says Luther Talbert, spring wheat breeder at Montana State University.

• New fungicides and forecasting models hold down crop disease.


• Farmers are more thorough in checking, or scouting, for crop disease in fields.

Farmers used to go to the edge of fields to check for crop disease. Now, they (or agronomists with special training in crop disease) walk into and through the field to scout, says Andrew Friskop, cereal grains extension pathologist with North Dakota State University.

• Farming practices have improved.

"Guys approach wheat production way different than they used to," says Duane Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D. The nonprofit corporation is a cooperative arrangement between South Dakota State University and ag producers.

A few examples: planting more seed, using more fertilizer and diversifying crop rotations.

• New, more sophisticated equipment increases productivity.

For instance, GPS and other precision agriculture tools allow farmers to apply the ideal amount of seed, fertilizer and other inputs to every square foot of a field. That allows the best chunks of a field to yield a little more.

A major bump in the road


The run of big spring wheat crops is especially gratifying to farmers and others who were active in the mid-1990s. That's when the crop disease known as scab emerged as a major threat to spring wheat production in the Upper Midwest, particularly North Dakota, South Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

Scab, also known as Fusarium head blight, Fusarium and FHB, is a fungal disease that hurts both yields and quality. It's caused at least $3 billion in damage in 18 states since 1990.

Damage would have been far greater without concerted and ongoing effort against the disease, industry officials say.

Important tools available now include online scab forecasting models, which help predict the risk of the disease during different growth stages of the crop and help producers determine fungicide use.

Scab also hurt the area wheat industry by forcing spring wheat breeders to change the focus of their work in the 1990s.

"When scab hit, all the spring wheat breeding programs had to start over," Torgerson says.

That delayed yield gains that otherwise would have been achieved much sooner, wheat industry officials say.

Scab generally hasn't been as bad in Montana. The disease fares best in wet conditions, and Montana doesn't receive as much precipitation as Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

But Talbert says Montana has had more problems with wheat stem sawfly, and consequently has devoted more resources to fight it. The insect, a type of wasp native to the Great Plains that uses wheat as a host plant, can cause major damage to plant stems, cutting sharply into yields.

Challenges ahead

Though farmers and others involved in the Upper Midwest industry are proud of what they've accomplished, they know a great deal of work remains.

One challenge is developing new varieties that allow protein content to remain high even with strong yields, Talbert says.

Another is keeping ahead of crop diseases that have potential to become more troublesome.

"We've been reactive. We need to be more proactive," Friskop says of fighting crop disease.

A return to consistently dry summers, in contrast to the past two decades of relatively wet growing seasons, would boost crop diseases that aren't a particular problem now, he says.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether spring wheat yields have plateaued, or reached a level from which they won't increase substantially anytime soon.

Experts say they're optimistic that's not the case, provided the weather continues to cooperate.

"It depends on what happens with the weather. If we warm (have consistently warmer summer temperatures), then spring wheat will suffer a bit," Beck says.

Von Bergen says yields can continue to rise if the industry retains access to biotechnology and other tools.

There's been speculation for decades that wheat yields might have plateaued, but yields have increased nonetheless, area wheat farmers and industry officials say.

Kruger says that while average annual yields will continue to fluctuate with weather conditions, the long-term outlook remains bright.

"I firmly believe we're on an upward trend," he says.

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The sun rises on the morning of July 24 over a wheat field and slough north of Devils Lake, N.D. Agweek photo by John Brose.

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