Rain on the plain makes grain but plentiful rainfall also typically correlates with lower protein content in the wheat berries, a concern for the industry heading into harvest.
Wheat harvest began in southern Oklahoma on May 15, about 10 days ahead of normal, but soon stalled after drenching rains arrived across much of the Southern and Central Plains. Cutting was expected to resume late this week.
Experts are waiting to see how the crop holds up as it comes in from the field, but several observers have noted the potential for a second consecutive year of lower than normal protein.
“I’m concerned,” said Mark Hodges, agronomist and executive director of Plains Grains Inc., based at Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Plains Grains is a nonprofit wheat marketing organization that samples, tests and issues reports on the quality attributes of the hard red winter wheat crop. The group, which is overseen by a board of directors made up of farmers from Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, also works to link producers with foreign and domestic flour millers to enhance profitability in the supply chain.
Hodges said a number of factors led him to conclude there could be low protein numbers again this year.
Last year’s bumper crop likely depleted any nitrogen reserves that were left in the soil, and low prices discouraged some farmers from investing in crop inputs this winter. Plentiful moisture and lack of stress during grain-fill also tend to reduce protein levels.
In addition, Northern Plains spring wheat, which is often blended with winter wheat to increase protein levels, was planted late this year, which also typically correlates with lower protein, Hodges said.
A crop that is short on protein would compound the glut of low-protein wheat left in storage from last year’s overflow harvest, he added.
The good news is farmers who were willing to invest in adequate fertilizer and protective fungicide applications might have an opportunity to capitalize from higher quality wheat, Hodges said.
In recent years, the wheat industry has made a push advocating for intensified management.
“Applying a fungicide not only helps protect your yield, it’s really going to help with grain quality,” said Joe Neal Hampton, who serves as the executive vice president of both the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association and the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association. “It typically boosts protein and test weight in addition to yield.”
Farmers have little control over the environment, however, and it has a sizable impact.
“You’re looking for test weight and protein both, but in my experience, it’s hard to get both. You usually get one or the other,” said James Wuerflein, who farms in northwest Oklahoma near Kremlin.
Some farmers who were able to bin higher protein wheat last year are now getting premiums of a dollar a bushel or more when they sell it.
Hodges said this year’s diminished crop might also be a factor that will make it hard for millers to get the quality they want. Farmers are poised to harvest the lowest number of wheat acres in more than a century. The National Ag Statistics Service predicts a winter wheat harvest of 1.246 billion bushels, which would make it the smallest since 2002.
If wheat plantings continue on the current trajectory, it’s not unreasonable to expect more millers and end-users to turn to production contracts in the future, Hodges said.
In fact, Plains Grains is hoping to help cultivate opportunities for farmers who grow select wheat varieties and follow expert management practices that fit what millers and bakers demand. Identity-preserved wheat should have added value in the marketplace, Hodges said.
“That’s something we’re exploring,” he said. “Everybody in the system has to make money on it, or it won’t work. But I’m extremely optimistic that we’re going to keep moving forward on this.”