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How to guard against low-protein wheat

06/02/2011 @ 10:26am

Because of last year’s good growing conditions, North Dakota and other Upper Midwest wheat growers harvested high yields. But poor protein levels came hand in hand with the bumper crop, causing deep wheat-price losses.

“Normally, protein falls in the range of 13% to 15%,” says Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension soil specialist. “This past year, protein levels were ranging from 9% to 14%. There has been so much low-protein wheat in the market that producers are being docked up to $1 a point.”

While some protein loss can be credited to the high yields, last year’s unique planting and growing conditions may have contributed.

Understanding the causes can, in some cases, help wheat producers modify management practices to safeguard crops against future losses in wheat protein and price.

Spring flooding of soils from the snowmelt of the 2008-2009 winter played a role in contributing to the conditions leading to low-protein wheat.

“Saturation of the soil, particularly in the eastern third of the state, can lead to gaseous loss of nitrous oxides,” says Franzen. “When soils are saturated, bacteria in the soil activate and transform nitrates to nitrous oxides, leading to gaseous nitrogen (N) losses.”

In the sandier soils of the western part of the state, the record snowfall and subsequent snowmelt may have led to leaching of N.

Prolonged wet soil conditions late into the spring may have contributed, too, to poor N assimilation into the soil from fertilizer applications. The wet soil conditions challenged seedbed preparation and efficient incorporation of fertilizers.

“When the soil was worked, there were clods and gaps in the surface, and these conditions lend themselves to N loss from ammonia volatilization,” says Franzen. “Anhydrous ammonia was applied to soil that was often wet a few inches below the soil surface, leading to ammonia losses over the course of several days following application.”

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