While Nebraska is consistently ranked among the top 12 wheat-growing states in the U.S., wheat acres have been on the decline over the last 40 years — falling from nearly 3 million acres of winter wheat harvested in the early 1980s to 1.5 million acres 10 years ago to 970,000 acres in 2019.
Among the reasons for declining acres are low wheat prices, challenges with fungal diseases like stripe rust and the use of protein scales at various elevators across western Nebraska — where most of the state’s wheat is grown — resulting in growers getting docked for low protein content.
However, wheat has value in a crop rotation, especially in a dryland rotation in the more arid regions of western Nebraska. That’s why some growers have made an extra effort to make wheat fit into their rotation, striving for higher yields while also producing higher protein content — in some cases, fetching a premium for protein. One of these producers is Brent Robertson, who grows wheat near Elsie in southwest Nebraska.
“It was in part a response to customer demands, and what we needed to do to sell our crop. I also recognized there’s value in a premium,” Robertson says. “If I grow the bushels, I may as well have a protein premium to go with it.”
Robertson notes three elements affect protein content: variety, nitrogen management and environment. “You can get variety and nitrogen management as right as possible, and the environment can still not reward you with protein,” he says. “There is some correlation with yield, because environmental stress will result in more protein. But if you do the first two things right, you can get still respectable protein and yield.”
“It’s a big step for growers to put on another 20 pounds of nitrogen and change their application timing, and it’s not always a one-to-one correlation for nitrogen and protein,” he adds. “If you do things right, the biggest return is additional bushels. If you get additional protein with those bushels, that’s the cream on top.”
Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, says there is always a market for quality wheat, although the market may not always be easy to find.
“I know sometimes when the producer looks at the costs of fertilizer applications, they start to weigh whether it’s worth it or not. But there is always a market for higher-protein wheat,” Schaneman says. “Typically, the Japan, Korea, Taiwan markets are higher-quality markets, and protein is the main component. Mexico and Latin America aren’t always as demanding, but still, the main thing they’re demanding is protein. If we can consistently bring 12% protein in the market, there’s a place for it.”
Protein is usually paid on the fifth — for example, 3 cents for every fifth of a percent over a certain percentage. If the premium is 3 cents a fifth with a 12% protein baseline, 13% protein wheat would fetch a 15-cent-per-bushel premium. With 100-bushel wheat, that’s $15 per acre.
Location, location, location
Perhaps the biggest challenge, Schaneman says, is location. “If you’re only served by one or two elevators in your area, your choices are limited logistically. There may be a premium 100 miles away, but the premium is lost to pay for shipping,” he says. “Elevators also set different threshold levels. I’ve seen baselines from 11.5% to 12% to 12.5%. It can be a challenge, but you’ve got to go out, search for them, see what it baseline is. And in cases where it’s a producer co-op, the producer may be able to work with the co-op to adjust the baseline.”
Schaneman also recommends producers take a couple samples from each field and have it tested to know what protein content they are working with.
The other challenge, he notes, is breeding for certain end-use traits, like protein.
“With traditional breeding methods for wheat it takes eight to 10 years to develop a variety. When our end users want to develop a different product, they change direction a lot faster than we can,” he says. “We have shortened that breeding time a little with new breeding methods, but even if it takes five to seven years, you’re always chasing it. However, if there’s open and honest communication between end user to grower to breeder, we can make some pretty good strides.”
Fetching a premium
Robertson typically puts on his first application of nitrogen with the drill, usually a base rate of about 45 pounds. After that, he applies another 45 pounds at jointing, followed by an additional 15 to 20 pounds with a fungicide application at flag leaf. He also applies by variable rate based on grid samples.
“Everybody talks about the nitrogen side, but I try to have a good balance of the other nutrients. I grid-sample,” he says. “Phosphorus and potassium aren’t necessarily a direct impact to protein, but they help with plant health. Anytime you keep that plant healthier, it’s going to reward you.”
Robertson is typically able to average 12% to 12.5% protein in his winter wheat. This allows him to sell for a premium to certain elevators on a protein scale.
“I did a lot of grain storage expansion in 2008, and I did it in a way that I could segregate different crops — my high and low protein wheat — or blend it if I need to. I put a lot of it in the bin at harvest, and that lets me shop for premiums after that. If I can sell the carry. I’ll carry it to December or March, depending on what the market dictates,” he says. “I take a composite sample when it’s in the bin so I know what I have. So I know what to ask for. I get all my bids picked up, FOB [freight on board], so it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from.”
“The thing that stings is when we have a lot of high-protein wheat from Texas to Montana. You can do everything right, get a year with great protein, and the millers don’t want to pay for it. A year like that does more to hurt momentum than anything else,” Robertson says. “There are premiums available, and they help, but it goes back to doing things right to improve plant health and increase yields. The premium is the cream on top.”
New crop in town
In the last couple years, more growers in southwest Nebraska have grown spring wheat after dryland corn, allowing them to keep the benefits of having wheat in the rotation, but without having to leave the field fallow before planting winter wheat the next fall. Brent Robertson is in his second year growing spring wheat on his farm near Elsie, and notes several reasons for introducing a new crop to the rotation.
“It’s mostly for rotational purposes. Growers don’t want to summer-fallow all year to raise a wheat crop. But they like being able to plant corn into wheat stubble,” Robertson says. “Plus, it breaks up the disease cycle. There are a lot of reasons to try spring wheat. And seed companies say genetics are getting better and varieties are getting more heat-tolerant.”
Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, notes spring wheat is typically higher in protein and may fit into dryland rotations better.
“As the ag economic environment gets a little more difficult, growers are looking for anything and everything to help make their operations work,” Schaneman says. “We’re already working with UNL to look at spring wheat test plots in that part of the state. As this develops and we do a little more research, we can hopefully find a variety or a number of varieties that work in that environment.”
“Where we’re getting hurt is about the time those heads start to fill, we tend to get hot and dry in southwest Nebraska,” he says. “If we have a cool, wet spring, and don’t have a lot of hot days in the summer, the crop can finish out and perform well.”
Another challenge with growing spring wheat is finding available markets. Currently, there are few available markets for spring wheat in Nebraska. Markets can vary from year to year, but Robertson has sold it to Scoular near Elsie and hauled it to Ardent Mills in Omaha.
Last year was Robertson’s first time growing spring wheat, and he notes both years have been a learning experience. In 2019, excessive rains led to delays in nitrogen applications. It’s ideal to apply nitrogen on spring wheat at the same growth stages as winter wheat — a base rate up front, followed by applications at joint and at flag leaf.
“Last year, my No. 1 target was making sure I had protein, then bushels, because spring wheat is even more protein-sensitive than winter wheat. My nitrogen management last year could have been better,” he says. “Last year it was so wet I didn’t get planted until early April. I knew I wanted protein, but I delayed nitrogen for too long, which hurt my yield, and I had about 14.5% protein.”
This year, the challenge was a lack of rain. While places in eastern Nebraska have received 8 to 12 inches of precipitation from April through June, parts of southwest Nebraska received as little as 3 to 4 inches, and have been categorized as abnormally dry or in mild drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“This year, we planted the first week of March, and it came up and the stand looked good until it burned up,” he says. “We started without a full profile, and had a couple 1-inch rains in May. Before that, the most measurable precipitation was in September when we drilled wheat. Typically, we’re worried about heat from early July onward. This year, it’s been hot and dry early on.”
“It looked promising. We’re abnormally dry. If we had normal rainfall this year, it would look pretty good,” he adds. “I’m not going to give up after one year of challenges.”