The coffee shop talk in wheat country is usually about high yields, but this year’s soaring protein premiums have added a caveat to that chatter. The protein content of this year’s crop of hard red winter wheat looks to be low for the second year in a row—a trend that has premiums at 10-year highs; flour millers scrambling after limited supplies of high protein wheat for blending; and winter wheat growers evaluating production practices with an eye towards protein as well as yield.

Plains Grains Inc.,—a quality based marketing initiative—annually evaluates roughly 500 samples taken during wheat harvest. As of early July, the protein level of this year’s crop was averaging 11.3%, little better than last year’s historical low of 11.2%. The five-year average prior to 2016 was 12.8%. Recent low levels have caused flour millers to import more high protein spring wheat which now makes up roughly 30% of their ‘grind’—nearly twice the normal share depending on the flour requirements.

“Protein levels are determined by the genetics of the variety, production practices (primarily nitrogen levels), and environmental conditions,” says Mark Hodges, executive director of Plains Grains. “Protein is ‘diluted’ when yields are high, and that’s what happened in 2016—favorable weather resulted in yields 50-70% above normal in many locations. Since farmers had fertilized for only a normal crop, residual nitrogen levels in the soil were depleted.”

Yield has long been the focus of variety selection, but wheat breeders now pay equal attention to quality. Protein premiums soared to $2 per bushel in Kansas during harvest.

“This set up the perfect storm for low protein in 2017,” adds Hodges. “Soil nitrogen levels were low from the previous bumper crop, that crop (with its low protein level) weighed on the market so prices were low— leaving farmers reluctant to apply additional fertilizer—and weather conditions were again favorable.”

Breaking the pattern. “Low protein levels are a serious problem for our industry,” says Brookville, Kansas, wheat grower Joe Kejr. “This region has a reputation of producing quality wheat and that is in jeopardy. I think we can regain it but growers will need to take management to another level by selecting varieties for high quality and managing fertilizer and other inputs more closely.”

One Oklahoma Coop—asked to be unnamed—is launching a program to that affect. The plan will require growers to grid sample fields and apply nitrogen at a specified time and level. Variety choices will be limited, various inputs required, and grain will be identity preserved for marketing. Guaranteed premium levels are being negotiated with grain buyers.

Promising growers a premium has always been a hurdle to managing for high protein—growers are paid almost exclusively on yield. When environmental stress reduces yields higher protein wheat is readily available to buyers with no premium.

“I think that attitude is changing,” says Kejr. “Buyers we deal with are more willing to talk about paying premiums, especially if you can deliver at a later date. In our case, we’ve added additional grain storage and purchased a protein tester so we can identify, segregate and store high quality grain. Some years we have had 13% and even 14% protein.”

Tom Clayman says
better management and new technology can allow wheat growers to have both high yields and high protein in their crop.

More solutions. Wheat breeders at Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and elsewhere are working to develop varieties that minimize the protein ‘dilution’ that occurs at high yields. The Kansas Wheat Commission is working to identify and resurrect past breeding lines with high quality that were discarded because of low yields.

Tom Clayman, co-owner of Kauffman Seeds, Haven, Kansas, sees hope from improved management and new technology. “We’re working with growers using the right varieties and adding late-season nitrogen to see a 1-2% increase in protein. We’re also excited about the potential for Indigo Wheat—a new microbial seed treatment—to improve protein by increasing nutrient uptake and improving root growth and plant health.” 

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