By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter
ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- As combines roll across the Great Plains, wheat growers are reporting some eye-popping yields, but the 2016 winter wheat harvest isn't quite perfect, agronomists, farmers and elevators told DTN.
"Yields are better than anyone's ever seen," said Mike Schmidt, the grain and operations manager at Pride Ag Resources in Dodge City, Kansas. "But protein is all over the board." Grain millers prefer protein levels near 12% or higher, but Schmidt is seeing a wide range of levels as low as 8%.
Even as reports of 100-plus-bushel dryland wheat trickle in from Kansas, Illinois, Ohio and even Oklahoma, some farmers may take a financial hit on their low-protein grain this year, Schmidt said.
The Oklahoma Wheat Commission estimated that 98% of the state's wheat is harvested, and USDA pegged the Kansas wheat harvest at 58% complete as of Sunday, June 26. Both states' paces are near or slightly above average, but persistent rainfall in the past two weeks has kept many Kansas growers out of the field and wheat quality may soon start to suffer, said Kansas State University Cropping Systems Agronomist John Holman.
THE PROTEIN PROBLEM
Protein levels in wheat are a fairly direct result of the amount of nitrogen available to the crop during grainfill, said David Marburger, Oklahoma State University small grains Extension specialist. Thanks to mild temperatures and plentiful moisture, wheat plants put on an enormous amount of grain this year, which essentially diluted the nitrogen concentration in each seed, he said.
Marburger said Oklahoma wheat protein levels are likely to average between 10.5% and 11.5% this year. Kansas State University Extension agent Tom Maxwell said he has heard average levels of 10% to 11.5% from Kansas growers.
"My area (central Kansas) was floating around 11% which is considered good this year," said Josh Svaty, who farms in Ellsworth County. Svaty expressed concern that growers will have trouble selling their low-protein grain this year, and Pride Ag Resource's Schmidt agreed it would be an issue for some.
"Even 11% is getting a big discount, and for anything lower than that, the discounts just get bigger," he said.
Drought and heat stress tend to have the opposite effect on protein. By shrinking the yield potential of the wheat plant, these conditions produce higher concentrations of nitrogen in the fewer (or smaller) resulting seeds. Thanks to this phenomenon, Oklahoma elevators have a lot of high-protein wheat from last year still in storage that could be used to blend the lower protein crop this year, said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.
BIG YIELDS, SLOWING HARVEST
Wheat yields are making for some excellent coffee shop stories this year. One central Ohio farmer told DTN he pulled in 130-bushel wheat yields in some fields this year. Maxwell and Holman said most yields in Kansas have ranged from 40 bushels to 80, but reports of 90- and 100-bushel wheat crops have not been uncommon. Marburger pegged Oklahoma yields between 30 to 60 bushels per acre, with isolated cases of 70 bushels and even 100 bushels.
Stripe rust spread quickly and widely after the disease got an early start in Texas this year. Untreated susceptible varieties did very poorly, but most farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma sprayed fungicides and saw little yield impact, agronomists said.
"We're seeing farmers starting to push management in wheat," Maxwell said. "They're pushing seeding rates, seed-applied fungicides, fertility, and in-season fungicides, and the wheat really responded well this year. Some of these varieties have tremendous top-end yield potential."
Test weights have been similarly impressive this year. Schmidt said Pride Ag Resources has weighed most grain at 60 pounds per bushel, and Maxwell said 60- to 62-pound test weights have been common in central Kansas.
Test weights were equally good in Oklahoma this year, but rainfall in southern regions delayed harvest and dropped test weights there down to 58 or 59 pounds, Marburger said.
Kansas growers are facing a similar situation now, Holman said. The first wave of harvested grain came out of the field at the right time, but the second wave is passing its ideal harvest date.
"This rain has got everything kind of bottlenecked -- custom cutters are having to leave jobs unfinished because it's just too wet," he said. "Quality might go downhill soon."
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.
© Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.