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For soft red wheat research on varieties and management: Growers want more from check-off

Farmers in the Northeast quadrant of Texas need soft red winter wheat.

They're none too pleased with price prospects at the moment, but as cotton acreage has diminished, wheat offers the best rotation option for corn, the moneymaker on many farms. And, even though wheat markets fluctuate from laughably low to perilously unprofitable, a good year provides good managers with cash flow to get a summer crop in the ground.

And hard wheat doesn't fit. Farmers here will average a good 10 to 15 bushels per acre more with soft wheat than they will with hard. Disease problems in this unique corner of Texas, where rainfall is considerably more dependable than in the more arid parts of the state, make hard wheat a bigger risk than most can afford.

And that's why wheat farmers here say they need continued research on soft red winter varieties and production management. Unfortunately, hard red winter wheat gets the lion's share of research money, even though soft red producers contribute, through a 1.5 cents per bushel check-off, a considerable amount of research funds.

“We believe soft red accounts for 20 percent of the state's annual wheat production,” says Ben Scholtz, a Collin County farmer and a member of the Texas Wheat Board, which oversees allocation of the check-off dollars.

Deserve share

“We believe we deserve an equitable share of those funds for soft red wheat.”

Scholtz says when the Texas A&M wheat advisory committee considers research needs it looks mostly at seeded acreage. Soft red doesn't match well with hard wheat in that formula, only about 8 percent of total acreage in any given year.

“But much of the state's hard wheat acreage is planted only for grazing,” he says. ‘It's never harvested. Production is where the check-off funds come from, and we contribute about 20 percent of the total from soft wheat. That's a significant part of the pie.”

“We can make a strong case for increased funding for soft red wheat research and market development,” says Jack Norman, a Grayson County wheat and corn farmer and a member of the wheat board. “I think we can at least maintain current levels of funding,” he says, “but we need more work, especially on managing the varieties we have available.”

Norman says the Texas Wheat Board “has been fair over the years. But we have to keep reminding them we're still here.”

He says the system at Texas A&M has changed in the past six years. “The research advisory committee reviews research proposals and ranks them. Our duty as wheat board members is to review those priorities, which sometimes do not match up with what farmers want.”

Growers say the thinking from academia is that breeding work and production research in neighboring states, Arkansas, Louisiana and other predominately soft wheat producers, should provide Northeast Texas growers adequate information to select varieties and develop production techniques.

Variety confidence

But they contend that ongoing variety work and production research should take place under the conditions they encounter, especially since they contribute to the efforts.

It's not like they have many choices.

“I'll continue to grow 100 percent soft red winter wheat,” Scholtz says. “Until we get a hard red variety I have some confidence in, something with an adequate disease tolerance package for this area, I'll stick with soft wheat.”

Scholtz says applying fungicides is both physically and economically infeasible in the urban area he farms.

“I have farms right next to housing developments,” he says. “I can't use a crop duster to fly on fungicide.”

Ronnie Lumpkins raises corn and wheat in Fannin and Hunt counties and sees more inequities for soft red winter wheat than just allocation of research dollars, although he agrees that soft wheat producers deserve a more equitable cut.

“We're not treated fairly in the market,” Lumpkins says. “We get a lower price, although there is good foreign demand for soft winter wheat. One of our biggest needs is for more market research and development. We need help selling our wheat.”

Soft wheat producers face a triple whammy, says Hunt County wheat and corn farmer Jay Norman. “We get hit on price, research and the farm program,” he says. Loan payments for soft red wheat may be as much as 60 cents per bushel lower than for hard wheat.

“We make up for some of that with higher yields,” says Lumpkins.

Funding struggle

“In the eyes of the advisory board, Texas is a hard winter wheat state,” Jay Norman says. “It's a bigger struggle every year to get adequate funds for soft wheat research. We ought to get a reasonable share of our check-off money.

“We already get hit hard on price and farm program support, so we have to find a way to produce wheat and stay profitable. Research plays a key role.”

Jack Norman says grading may not be consistent either. “Some years we can put hard wheat in the bin and when it comes out it grades soft.”

Lumpkins says changes in climatic conditions may cause wheat grades to change from hard to soft. “We can end up with mixed soft and hard grades in a bin and that's worth less than either soft or hard,” he says. “Milling qualities are all messed up with a mixture.”

Jack Norman says Northeast Texas farmers also are concerned with head sprouting in hard wheat some years. “We don't have that problem with soft wheat.”

Soft red winter wheat meshes with the climate of Northeast Texas. Disease resistance is better; yield is considerably higher; and farmers have developed management programs that work well in a corn rotation.

But to keep those programs viable, they need research into new production techniques, varieties and market development. They'd like to see a bigger portion of the check-off money they invest earmarked for research they can use.

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