National Wheat Foundation yield contest challenges wheat growers to excel, learn and apply new methods

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Anne Osborne was named project manager for the National Wheat Foundation at the beginning of January. She hit the ground running by sitting in on one of the foundation’s ongoing strategic planning meetings. “It was just fascinating,” she said. “This industry is so complex. Wheat is such a great food crop and can be used for so many things.”

With wheat harvest getting closer, competitive winter wheat producers are gearing up to enter the annual national yield contest, open now through May 15.

This is the sixth year for the contest, which is now under the direction of project manager Anne Osborne, a long-time member of North Dakota’s agriculture industry.

Every year, 24 awards are presented in two categories, winter and spring wheat, divided further by whether they are produced under dry land or irrigated conditions. There are two rankings: one for yield, and another for yield expressed as a percentage of the county average, which gives growers in less productive regions a chance to shine.

A state winner is also named for each of 21 participating states.

Topping Colorado’s entries last year was Brett Arnusch, of Weld County, who achieved a yield of 79.67 bushels with WestBred’s WB4418 variety.

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More than 400 farmers entered the contest in 2020, but not all of them actually submitted a sample, Osborne said during a recent interview. For an entry to qualify, a supervisor must be present when the 1.5-acre patch of ground is harvested — typically a county agent or crop insurance agent — in order to provide third party authentication.

Osborne said since it takes a little extra time and effort to collect and submit samples, farmers don’t always get it done, and weather can be a factor as well.

All samples must meet a minimal quality standard to qualify for recognition. The samples are sent to Portland, Oregon’s Wheat Marketing Center for grading, and only those that meet specs for U.S. grade one or two are accepted, she said.

Yield contests are a staple of most commodity crops. The corn growers started a national contest in 1965. The sorghum industry launched theirs in 1985.

Such contests are about more than just bragging rights.

Challenging growers to see how they measure up against their peers encourages them to improve their management and test out new methods that look promising, Osborne said.

“It’s one tool, and it doesn’t appeal to every farmer,” she noted. “But it is a tool to help them learn best management practices that they can use on the rest of their acreage. Contestants have told me they have applied new practices from what they learned through the contest, and it has made them more productive, and more profitable.”

The educational component includes bringing winners together to learn from each other and sharing their stories through the agricultural media. The National Wheat Foundation, which oversees the contest, also distributes existing educational materials, such as a recent field crop webinar on improving wheat income offered by Dennis Pennington, a wheat specialist at Michigan State University.

Osborne said the foundation plans to build on educational outreach efforts in the future.

In addition, the contest generates information that is beneficial to the industry as a whole. For example, contestants are encouraged to provide head counts per acre, one of multiple data points that help the industry develop a better understanding of the role of inputs such as seeding rates.

“That data is very useful to us,” she said.

With supplies of commodity crops often in excess and commodity prices generally low, a question that often arises is whether it makes sense for contests like these to emphasize yield rather than other aspects of production, such as quality characteristics.

As to whether the foundation has considered launching a quality contest in addition to the yield competition, Osborne said the challenge has always been figuring out exactly how to define quality.

“It gets very complicated, because wheat has so many uses and gets made into so many different products,” she said. “With noodles, for example, the parameters will be different than they are for bread. Different end users want different functionalities from their wheat.”

“End-use is very important to us,” she added, “but we need to study it a little bit more.”

Earlier this year, the foundation’s board approved three new research projects that could influence the contest in the years to come.

One project will study the correlation between high yield and high quality, as defined by end-users in a given region.

Another project will explore whether high yield translates to higher profitability. The foundation hopes to synthesize previous research in that area and also ask contest winners to share more about their input costs, including what investments paid off for them.

Osborne said she hopes to see wheat’s role in generating environmental benefits and boosting profitability of rotational crops included in the economic assessment.

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The foundation will also look into whether producing wheat with higher potassium levels could contribute human health benefits.

Low levels of potassium in the diet have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

“We want to continue to move toward adding end-use quality to everything we do,” she said. “We don’t want to be producing something that end users don’t want to buy.”

That said, the winners in the annual contest tend to be the cream of the crop, and typically demonstrate exceptional skill at producing a highly desirable product, she said.

Does the marketplace do enough to incentivize higher quality wheat or reward the farmers who produce it?

“That’s a question that’s been debated for the last 30 years,” Osborne reflected. “We’re just trying to keep communication open all across the value chain and make sure to let our breeders know what kinds of things end-users are looking for and what works best for farmers.”

Growers can sign-up for the contest online at YieldContest.WheatFoundation.org. The cost is $100 for entries received by April 1; after that, the price goes up an additional $25. Entries are accepted through May 15.