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Growing bread wheat promising

A recent survey by the Virginia Small Grain Growers Association indicates farmers there would plant more wheat, if the price was consistently in the $4 per bushel range.

Growing hard red wheat, commonly called bread wheat, may be an option for both conventional and organic growers in Virginia and North Carolina.

Virginia Tech Wheat Specialist Wade Thomason says price is the over-riding reason wheat production has gradually declined over the years in Virginia. “Our farmers can grow wheat as well as farmers anywhere in the country, but variation in price has taken a lot of wheat acreage out of production over the years,’ he says.

Thomason’s research team recently planted several new varieties of bread wheat and looked at some alternative production practices for growing this type wheat in Virginia.

“One issue in growing bread wheat in the upper Southeast is to grow wheat that had the 12 percent protein needed to produce high quality bread. We can produce high yields of wheat, but high yields and high protein usually don’t go together,” he says.

At three sites across the state the Virginia Tech researchers applied 25-30 pounds of nitrogen per acre at flag leaf emergence. Nitrogen is usually applied to wheat to increase yield, but in this case the Virginia researchers were trying to encourage nitrogen uptake in the wheat plants, which they says can increase grain protein levels.

A problem with the approach, from the farmer’s perspective, is the high cost of nitrogen, without some assurance of getting the quality response they need to increase the value of bread wheat. At $20-$25 per acre, the low-rate nitrogen applications, combined with low prices of wheat, aren’t a gamble many growers are going to take.

In the Virginia Tech tests, late season nitrogen applications consistently increased grain protein by one-half to one percent. Harvard, Karl92 and Maxine varieties showed the most response, with each topping 13 percent grain protein. Culpepper is one variety that showed no response to the nitrogen boost, while TAM110 and 92PAN#2 each showed moderate response to the treatments.

The Virginia researchers used Greenseeker to develop a predictive model to determine which varieties, under which growth conditions, would most likely respond to the low rate, late season nitrogen applications. Greenseeker is a real time, on-the-go remote sensing system that estimates crop nitrogen requirement based on the crop's vegetative index measured as NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index). NDVI is the ratio between the percentage of reflected red visible light and percentage of reflected near infrared light in the plant. The higher the absorption of visible red light compared to the reflected near infrared light the healthier the plant.

Thomason says an NDVI rating of 98 looks like the optimum rating at which bread wheat needs a late-season shot of nitrogen to produce the 12 percent grain protein level needed for high value, high quality wheat. Though not quite there yet, Thomason says an accurate predictive model is possible to help Virginia growers determine when and if late season nitrogen should be applied to bread wheat in the upper Southeast.

The growth of wheat production in North Carolina and Virginia is highly dependent on a farmer’s ability to grow higher value bread wheat.

In the Mid-Atlantic region a large portion of the grain used in bread production is purchased by regional mills from other wheat growing areas of the country, especially the Great Plains. In mid-July, 13 percent protein hard red wheat was selling for $6.47, compared to $5.65 for 10.5 percent protein soft white wheat. Some of the price difference in the Southeast is made up by higher yields of soft white wheat.

Several production steps are critical to growing maximum yields of bread wheat in the upper Southeast. The first is variety selection. As Thomason’s tests reveal, some varieties simply won’t respond to management technique like late season, low-rate nitrogen applications.

“Bread wheat varieties will definitely need more management than most of the varieties we grow in Virginia. Mildew resistance, for example, isn’t nearly as good in these bread wheat varieties as we see in our soft wheat varieties,” Thomason says.

Yield potential is important and typically the first consideration when choosing a cultivar. However, end-use quality and product consistency are of equal importance when selecting cultivars to be produced for specific markets. Decisions on which cultivar to plant should be based on performance data, including disease resistance, insect resistance, heading dates, lodging rates, height, test weight, and yield. Spreading risk by planting several cultivars with appreciably different maturity is recommended, especially if large acreage is planned.

Next to ‘what’ to plant, when to plant wheat varieties is critical. In Virginia and much of North Carolina optimum yield potential is only achieved when planting occurs within the recommended window. This window for optimum yields is usually the date of the first annual fall freeze plus or minus one week.

Improper cultivar selection, poor seed quality, late planting, incorrect plant population, and incorrect seeding depth cannot be overcome with in-season management practices.

Planting wheat earlier than the recommended period will subject it to greater insect and disease pressure and subsequently to more winter injury. Although wheat emerges sooner and the shoot develops faster in warm soil, the root system develops much faster and more extensively if the soil is cool.

Planting later than the recommended date may be even more detrimental to yield potential. Late-planted wheat will have fewer tillers, and thus fewer heads and reduced yield potential.

Seeding rate is another production parameter than can directly impact bread wheat quality and yield. Virginia research demonstrates that seeding rates for current bread wheat cultivars in a conventional, tilled seedbed should be at least 43 seeds per square foot (25 seeds per row foot in 7.5 inch rows) to approach optimum yields.

Initial results support the conclusion that seeding at 45 to 50 seeds per square foot is appropriate for sites with yield potential of more than 75 bushels per acre.

Increased seeding rates are advisable when planting later than optimum and/or with no-tillage planting. It is advisable to increase no-tillage seeding rates by 10 percent over conventional rates when planting into heavy residue, such as corn stover, or when soil conditions make it difficult to maintain a constant planting depth.

Increasing seeding rates generally is not necessary when planting after soybeans or when residue levels are not extremely high. If producers are growing both conventional and no-tillage wheat, it would be advisable to plant bread-wheat cultivars with conventional-tillage, because no-tillage wheat often yields slightly less than conventionally planted wheat.

“Southerners have never grown much bread wheat — that’s why we eat so many biscuits,” quips North Carolina State University Organic Crop Specialist Chris Horton.

Thanks to a recent grant by the Farm Stewardship Association via the North Carolina Tobacco Trust, that may be about to change in the Tar Heel state.

Horton says growing bread wheat, either conventionally or organically, would be a big boon for farmers in the upper Southeast. However, growing conditions are not on our side, he notes. High humidity spoils the plant with disease, and heavy rains prompt the grain to germinate prematurely.

New disease-resistant varieties have solved some of the problems, but wheat enthusiasts will still have to overcome ingrained skepticism from farmers and bakers who have been taught that it's impossible to produce quality bread-making wheat in the Southeast's humid climate, he explains.

Growers who have already been growing soft wheat in North Carolina and would like to grow hard wheat for a better price, may have harvester thresher combine equipment, but may not have proper grain storage. Most of the wheat grown in the state has traditionally gone to the feed mill; quality wheat and quality grain storage is essential for food-grade wheat growing, according to Horton.

As with most commodities, grower interest will likely stem from price they get for their crop. In an area where peanuts and cotton are declining, double-crop wheat and soybeans is going to be a hard combination to pass up. If new varieties and new production practices can increase yield and get quality up to Midwest standards, bread wheat may be an option for growers in the upper Southeast.

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