For generations, wheat has been a commodity crop, separated only by the six classes and the production region. But as wheat breeders and researchers continue to learn more about this complex crop, they are finding ways to differentiate wheat on the marketplace. And that could lead to future value-added opportunities for wheat farmers.
In Kansas, a partnership between Kansas Wheat and Kansas State Research and Extension, called Wheat Rx, is sharing that data with producers in a series of educational meetings, handouts and online materials.
As Kansas farmers start to consider their fall seeding decisions, a series of Wheat Rx meetings were held across the state in early August. On Aug. 9, farmers gathered in Phillipsburg to hear about how they can manage their winter wheat to boost protein. This is of particular interest considering the newly renamed Amber Wave facility on the north side of town will need up to 20 million bushels of wheat every year for its wheat protein and ethanol production starting in July.
Kansas produces about 330 million bushels of wheat a year, so this one plant will use a substantial amount of that production, said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations for Kansas Wheat.
“Right now, the hard red winter wheat in the central U.S. has an average of 12.9% protein, and we will probably end up with about 12% protein in Kansas,” Harries said of the 2022 crop.
But historically, growers manage their wheat crops for yield and not for quality characteristics since there’s no premium for quality on the commodity market. But as markets like Amber Wave and others crop up, they’re going to need the data to reach those quality goals, he added.
Genetics, environment and management
Allan Fritz, a K-State wheat breeder, explained that breeding for quality characteristics in wheat is not really practical, considering it can take five to 11 years to breed a variety, depending on the method used.
Typically, quality trials can’t be conducted until about seven years after the initial cross, he said. And when you consider that the breeding pipeline starts with about 2 million genetic options, and through breeding and selection comes up with one variety that will be commercially released, it’s virtually impossible to breed the perfect wheat variety that offers yield stability, height, straw strength, disease protection and quality traits.
“Getting all these traits right is like matching the seven numbers in the lottery,” Fritz said.
Breeders like him aim to get as many of those traits as they can. But in the end, management and environment will also play a key role in the crop. “Genetics don’t operate in isolation,” he said.
And that’s what Wheat Rx is trying to help farmers understand — raising wheat for future markets will mean better understanding the intersection of the environment and management components to maximize the genetic potential of varieties.
Thoughts for 2023 crop
As farmers gear up for fall planting, Fritz and K-State colleagues Romulo Lollato and Lucas Haag, Extension agronomists at the Colby and Tribune research centers, had some thoughts for farmers:
Wild relatives. Fritz said the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at K-State is taking another look at the genetics of wild wheat ancestors to see if there are genes that were sorted out in the past by breeders selecting on phenotype that might have applications for today’s drought conditions, or disease pressures, or even protein quality.
Mary Guttieri’s USDA Agricultural Research Service program, for example, is working with wild emmer introgressions. She’s finding that wild emmer can produce up to 28% protein, Fritz said. Those genes may be useful in today’s breeding programs.
Drought tolerance. The 2022 growing season was tough all around, but Fritz said it was also a real-world test for how these varieties do in drought conditions, and some yielded better than were expected. It offers some hope for future breeding efforts.
Value of fertility. Haag said at the end of the day, no other crop input offers as high of a return on investment as nitrogen, and the penalty for being short on nitrogen in your wheat crop can be pretty steep. As growers consider growing wheat for a protein market, they must apply the right source of nitrogen at the right rate at the right time and the right place to maximize their investment. That goes for their whole fertility program, too.
Late-season nitrogen. Applying nitrogen after the flag leaf, or the boot stage, can be important for protein development, Lollato said. But certain environments can be harmful to the crop. Also, if your protein is at 11.5% or less, it’s a sign you’re not applying enough nitrogen to meet your yield goals, let alone develop protein in the grain. That’s leaving yield on the table, he said.
For more insights from the Wheat Rx program, visit kswheat.com.