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Wheat Feeds the World

More than one-third of the population of the earth depends on wheat as a staple of its diet. When milled into flour, the grain accounts for nearly 20% of calories and protein consumed by humans, more than any other single food source.

Wheat is a cultivated grass, with countless varieties grown worldwide. Its origins date back more than 17,000 years to the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley in what is now known as Iraq. Today, approximately three-fourths of U.S. grain products are made from wheat, mostly grown on the Great Plains. China is the leading wheat producing country in the world, with India, Russia, U.S., France, Australia, Canada, Pakistan, Ukraine, and Germany rounding out the Top 10.

Here you will find prospects for production in years to come, as well as information on new varieties and advice for growers.

Changes in Global Wheat Production

Wheat production in the U.S. is a changing picture, mostly due to reduced profitability. Kansas, once the country’s wheat powerhouse, is now planting the lowest number of winter wheat varieties in 99 years. It is a trend that is expected to continue as global competitors gain an advantage.

Growers are shifting to more profitable crops. Experts at Oklahoma State University claim it costs nearly $170 per acre to grow red wheat, requiring a market price of $4.89 per bushel to break even.

Water supplies are a growing issue for producers of winter or spring wheat, and many are finding drought-resistant varieties of corn to be a better alternative.

Regardless of the type of wheat, the experts say U.S. producers will continue to face challenges that will likely change the agricultural makeup of the Southern Plains and other wheat-growing regions.

Things to Consider When Planting Wheat

With competition fierce and every dollar invested working overtime, producers need to rely on the best and latest agricultural practices to maximize potential profits, beginning with planting.

Fertile soil, a firm seedbed, uniform seeding depth, even tractor speed all play a part in getting a wheat stand off to a good start. Planting date matters, too. Plant winter wheat near the Hessian fly-free date to reduce risk of damage from the pest, but before the crop-insurance deadline.

Spring wheat is planted generally in April, allowing the crop to mature before the late summer heat.

If a stand is not emerging as it should, there could be a number of reasons, ranging from soil temperature and moisture to a clogged seed drill. Experts say the first step in fixing the problem is identifying the specific problem.

New Wheat Varieties

There are numerous varieties available to today’s growers. Some newer niche wheats feature reduced gluten, high-fiber without a bitter whole wheat taste, and increased nutritional value.

In 2018, following a 13-year, multi-national collaborative effort, scientists succeeded in mapping the wheat genome, leading the way to varieties that are better able to provide higher yields in challenging climates with improved sustainability.

At the same time, new developments of more traditional wheat may be on hold. Syngenta had intended to have spring wheat hybrids ready for release in 2021, with winter wheat hybrids coming soon after. The company now says it will continue development, but will delay product release until there are more favorable market conditions.

Growing Wheat Sustainability

Like farmers of all crops, wheat growers work to protect their land and natural resources while increasing profit and productivity. Rotating wheat with a diverse array of crops, all with little or no till practices improves soil health, reduces wind and water erosion, and conserves moisture.

Northern growers are able to utilize awnless wheat as livestock forage. As a rotational crop, winter wheat can serve as a winter cover crop, protecting the soil from erosion with fewer nitrate problems than other cereal cover crops.

Improving Wheat Yields

Successfully growing wheat means getting the highest yields possible. Some producers have recorded yields as high as 120 bushels per acre, but that is not the norm. Producers must constantly work to reduce loss by identifying disease, treating seeds with the right products, and managing seed populations.

Even a more realistic goal of 100 bushels per acre is difficult to achieve. Researchers studying the common practices of top growers have identified practices that help increase yields. High yield growers are diligent about weed, pest and fungus control, use ample nitrogen fertilizer, plant rows at optimum width, and use no-till soil management.

In-season management practices like normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery, that helps identify nitrogen needs, add to the prospect of producing a healthy, high-yielding crop.

Wheat production will need to increase by 1.6% per year to meet projected world food demands by 2050. The challenge is to accomplish this goal without additional cultivated land, placing intensified importance on crop genetics and improved production practices.

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