Colorado's wheat acreage is holding steady and even increasing in some areas, according to wheat officials who held a series of meetings recently to elect board members and discuss legislative issues, new variety development and industry promotion.

Hard red winter wheat acreage overall came in lower than expected across much of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas due to a wet fall.

Planted acreage is estimated at 22.7 million acres, down from last year's 23.2 million.

"A lot of farmers were waiting for their milo or corn to come off before they planted their wheat this year and that just didnt happen. We ended up with a lot of crops that are still standing, even into January. That's pushed back plans of planting more wheat to where it's too late," Dave Green, executive director of the Wheat Quality Council, said in a recent report.

Southwest Kansas and Northeast Colorado were exceptions, Green added, with higher wheat seeding in those areas.

Brad Pachner, a certified seed dealer from Akron, said he was pleased with business this fall.

"I thought it might be down a little bit, but it's turned out to be comparable with last year," he said. "I did get a stand. Maybe it's a little bit behind where it would normally be at this time, but as long as we don't get a stretch of really cold weather, I think we'll be in good shape."

At the meetings, wheat officials gave updates on new variety releases in the pipeline, talked about marketing opportunities, and discussed the need for strong legislative representation and outreach at the Colorado state capitol this year.

Following the mid-term election, Democrats now hold a majority across state government from the legislative chamber to the governor's mansion, with many new faces representing urban rather than rural backgrounds.

"Certainly the political climate in our state has changed, and we're going to have to spend a lot of time developing relationships," said Nick Midcap, a farmer and seed dealer from Wiggins who is on the Colorado Wheat Growers board.

Midcap was optimistic that legislators learned a lesson in the past when they ignored rural interests and deepened political divisions within the state.

"The last time they were in this position and the government pushed a lot of unpopular things through, we had recall elections that brought Republicans back into office," he said. "I don't think they want to do that again."

There's still strong conservative sentiment in the state, as reflected by the defeat of new taxes to fund education and transportation infrastructure and the lack of support for new drilling setbacks, he added.

In early February, the Colorado Wheat Growers will host a legislative come-and-go breakfast, offering cinnamon rolls and coffee, in place of their annual legislative luncheon. Midcap said they are hoping the new format will allow them to meet more legislators face-to-face rather than just staffers.

Another challenge ahead for the state's wheat industry is the ongoing invasion of the wheat stem sawfly. Hot spots erupted last year in east central and northeast Colorado, indicating that insect populations are continuing to build.

"We're trying to get some federal funding for research to address this issue," said Brad Erker, the executive director of Colorado Wheat.

The pest is difficult to control with herbicides, he added, so agronomists are developing solid stem wheat varieties and studying preventive use of cultural practices like buffer strips.

Colorado State University will host the International Wheat Stem Sawfly Conference in Ft. Collins March 19-20 and a link to registration information is posted on the Colorado Wheat webpage.

On a brighter note, Colorado is getting a lot of attention from other breeding programs with its new herbicide tolerant trait, the first to hit the market since Clearfield technology in the early 2000s.

The CoAXium wheat production system, which works in tandem with Aggressor brand herbicide, allows growers to rotate weed-fighting chemistries that attack grassy invaders like cheatgrass and jointed goat grass.

K-State, Oklahoma State and the University of Nebraska, along with several private breeding programs, have all expressed interest in licensing the trait to incorporate with their own genetics, according to Tyler Benninghoven, seed and trait specialist for the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation.

Interest also extends beyond the region to the Pacific Northwest and even Europe, he added.

CSU is in the process of releasing its second CoAXium variety, Crescent AX, which is expected to make the trait more attractive to more growers.

To plant varieties that contain the trait, growers will need to sign a stewardship agreement, a process that can be done online but involves answering a series of questions that Benninghoven warned might seem intrusive to some growers.

The process is necessary to protect the trait, he said.

"It's just part of doing business the right way," he explained. 

Other new varieties in the pipeline include Snowmass 2.0, which qualifies for Ardent Mills' white wheat contract program and Monarch, another white wheat that is not exclusive to any one end-user. Canvas and Whistler are two new varieties in the hard red winter category that follow on the heels of Langin, a 2016 release that topped yield trials in Colorado for three years running.

Canvas is similar to Langin, but not as early maturing and has improved straw strength.

Wheat officials also discussed the new farm bill and the need to improve wheat's image with consumers.

Just last week Impossible Foods, the maker of the meat-free Impossible Burger, announced it would replace wheat with soy protein concentrate in its plant-based patties, heralding the move to a "gluten-free formulation."

Colorado Wheat Communications Coordinator Madison Andersen was in New Orleans this week representing Colorado at the Wheat Foods Council annual meeting. The industry nonprofit looks for opportunities to promote the nutritional benefits of wheat-based foods.