About five years ago, Frenchman Valley Co-op sent out its annual postcard to growers in its trade territory, encouraging them to set up soil sampling for the fall. This letter, however, was met with resistance from one grower, noting that with low wheat prices and elevators discounting wheat prices on a protein scale, he couldn’t afford additional expenses.
“I said, ‘Guys, this is exactly the person who needs our help. We never really paid much attention to wheat as a primary crop before. It’s just kind of a secondary crop,” says Ben Sauder, vice president of agronomy at Frenchman Valley Co-op. “I started looking at the numbers, and we used to have 1.1 million acres of wheat just in our trade territory. Now there’s less than 1 million acres of wheat in the state. We looked at that and thought, ‘There’s a lot of room we can make up there.’”
Frenchman Valley’s intensive management program is aimed at improving the management of wheat acres from a whole-systems perspective — and that means everything from planting populations to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to micronutrients — with the goal of improving grower profitability and wheat quality.
“We started five years ago trying to figure out the protein component in wheat, and we’ve been able to separate ourselves a percent-and-a-half protein from a conventional program,” says Sauder.
“There’s been a big shift in how people view wheat. In order to grow dryland corn, we’ve got to have a good wheat. As older growers retire, we’ve got younger growers picking it up who are more interested in raising a good crop rather than a 40-bushel crop,” he adds. “We continue to evolve and change our program and improve. This spring will be crop No. 5. We went from 4-bushel and 50-bushel wheat to 140-bushel wheat. I think we’ll hit 200-bushel someday.”
Matt Klingman was applying intensive management practices on his wheat acres in Deuel County even before FVC’s program. While the average protein in the area is 10%, Klingman and others involved in the program typically average 11.5%.
“We talk a lot about what something is going to gain, as in return on investment, versus what the cost is. I think that’s the biggest holdup for a lot of growers,” Klingman says.
However, the intensive management program isn’t just about nitrogen. It starts with planting based on seeds per acre, rather than the traditional pounds per acre, explains Joe McColloch, agronomist at Frenchman Valley Co-op.
“When you change variety, we always determine the seeding rate per pound so you know how many seeds you have,” McColloch says. “If you start using a variety with 11,000 seeds per pound, and you were using a variety with 15,000 seeds per pound, you need a lot more pounds to get up to the rate you want with 11,000 per pound.”
It’s also important to build phosphorus levels — ideally, to around 23 or 25 parts per million.
“Out here, our soils are often in single-digit numbers, so a lot of growers will apply 40 to 50 pounds at planting time,” McColloch says. “Phosphorus helps with root growth and to establish a good root base to take up water and other nutrients, as the plant needs it.”
Klingman prefers to apply around 40 to 50 pounds in-furrow with the drill.
“I like applying phosphorus in a real high rate with a drill, because it’s an inch and a half in furrow. So if wheat doesn’t use it, it’s in a nice band for the next crop,” he says. “Phosphorus prices are pretty low right now, so it’s a way for me to invest in phosphorus levels for the long term.”
Klingman and other growers in the intensive management program typically make at least two nitrogen applications in spring. Klingman makes a protein builder application at green-up, which includes sulfur, zinc and a small amount of nitrogen. Sulfur is applied at a 10:1 ratio with nitrogen, and McColloch says it plays a key role in helping the plant take up other nutrients.
“That’s when we count tillers to determine how much nitrogen to apply, if any, to promote tillers to discourage tillering,” Klingman says.
Applying too much nitrogen before jointing can encourage growth of secondary tillers.
“We’re also holding off to apply nitrogen later so the plant doesn’t use all that N for plant stem growth. We want it for grain and protein,” McColloch says. “After joint, the plant will no longer tiller and use the majority of nitrogen for yield and protein.”
And most of the nitrogen is applied using a high-clearance machine equipped with a stream bar, which minimizes leaf burn. Frenchman Valley also uses yield potential maps to variable-rate apply.
For Klingman, the last shot of nitrogen comes at flag leaf. “That last nitrogen application is a pretty touchy one, because you don’t want to damage or burn your flag leaf,” he says. “That’s why we’ll stream it. I don’t broadcast any fertilizer.”
Of course, one challenge for growers is marketing and getting paid for raising higher-quality wheat. Growers like Klingman sometimes store wheat and shop around for premiums.
“I’m on the phone daily checking local basis levels and what the truck market is doing. My preference is to sell it locally to Frenchman Valley, but I’ll sometimes ship it to Omaha, Lincoln [Neb.] or even go west to Ogden, Utah, depending on what the rates are,” Klingman says. “As a producer, I set out for yield right now. Protein is an added bonus, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be paid for that bonus.”
Sauder notes FVC and growers are working to supply not only higher-protein wheat, but other desirable baking and milling characteristics as well. This includes bake-testing varieties using a farinograph, which tests dough for several different parameters.
“We sent 15 samples off to see if we could start educating ourselves, and had all 15 samples baked from 15 different growers to see if we can figure out what they did to produce those qualities that the mills want,” he says. “Conventional logic would tell you that the higher the protein, the better the wheat is.” However, according to Sauder, einkorn at 17.98% protein produced a “dumpy” little loaf, while AgriPro SY Monument at 11.74% protein produced a “beautiful” loaf.
Other baking qualities include:
Water absorption. The ability to retain water and not dry out while sitting on the shelf (60% or greater is optimum).
Dough stability. The amount of time dough stays stable before falling (10 to 15 minutes is ideal); and dough development time, or the time it takes to blend (usually 8 to 9 minutes is ideal).
“Einkorn had a development time of 2.8 minutes, and a stability of 1.5 minutes. So, when you create a dough, you’ll over-knead it every time. Then you’ve got to keep adding more gluten into it to keep it held together,” Sauder says. “These are all the qualities that mills want now. It’s not necessarily just protein. They want the right amount of protein, but they want all of this stuff.”
“Growers need to be aware of what the industry wants,” Sauder says. “With low-quality wheat, the only thing we can do is run it through a cow. Then you’re competing against corn instead of growing a high-quality product and having end users come to us. Then we can truly make a cooperative work the way it’s supposed to, because we have a superior product that people want to buy.”