Solving the protein mystery

THE CHALLENGE OF HARD RED WINTER WHEAT

this year’s hard Red Winter wheat crop was challenged to reach the industry preferred protein level of 11 percent. Many growers are now questioning why their wheat didn’t make protein and how they can increase protein levels next year; but some are even wondering why it matters.

Bakers and millers care about protein in wheat (particularly hard wheat used for baking bread). Protein affects gluten content and loaf volume during the baking process. A large amount of the wheat used in Ontario’s milling and baking industry comes from Western Canada and the Western United States. That wheat is higher in protein. This allows millers to produce the flour desired by bakers to produce high quality bread. Ontario wheat producers have a huge opportunity to access this market, if they can consistently deliver high protein hard wheat in Ontario.

“Protein is worth money at the end of the day,” says Dana Omland, Merchandizing Manager for Palmerston Grain. “Because there is reduced demand for lower protein wheat, there is less value in it.”

the importance of nitrogen
Numerous factors influence protein content in wheat. The largest factor is the amount of nitrogen available during heading and grain fill.  Protein consists of amino acids and nitrogen is part of the basic structure of all amino acids. The amount of nitrogen available to the plant is influenced by both environmental conditions and management practices.

When you apply nitrogen to wheat, this applied nitrogen is only part of the total nitrogen used by the wheat plant. The balance available to the plant comes from nitrogen mineralization in the soil. Organic matter content of the soil, manure application history, and weather conditions will affect how much nitrogen is mineralized each year. Soils higher in organic matter or with a history of manure application will release more nitrogen to be available to the wheat crop. Warm and wet soil conditions will maximize soil microbe activity, increasing available nitrogen.

Nitrogen management for maximum yield and protein content involves ensuring that adequate nitrogen is available during the vegetative growth stage. To reach maximum protein content, you must have adequate nitrogen available during grain fill.

This past season, many growers applied all of their nitrogen in the early spring when the wheat first greened up. With limited snowfall last winter, most fields had the nitrogen applied earlier than normal. That nitrogen was used up by the plant during vegetative growth. This helped yield, but left little around when the seed was filling for protein formation.

one farmer’s method
Ed Biehn, a grower in Moorefield, has been using a split application process for several years to address this problem. After experimenting with different products, he’s happy with the results he achieves with UAN 28. Biehn utilizes a 50-50 split, spraying 25 gallons an acre at a time. He doesn’t apply it immediately at green up, but says the key is to be patient until the plant can actually use it.

“I usually delay the application until the latter part of April, beginning of May,” he explains. “And then at early boot stage going in a drizzle or a light rain, putting another 25 gallons down; and my experience the past two years is I have gotten high protein.”

But this season, Biehn didn’t get the rainy day he needed for the second application, and had to spray during a foggy morning instead. The drier than normal weather also limited the amount of microbial activity in the soil; and thus reduced the mineralization of nitrogen from soil.

Biehn says the weather is the principal reason his protein levels were lower this year. However, he still managed to reach premium levels at 10.8 to 10.9 percent. This compares to the 11.5 to 11.9 percent he has achieved in the past on both his farm and a neighbour’s property.

Biehn’s method is just one example. However, other growers that achieved protein in their Hard Red Winter wheat this year also used either split applications or a nitrogen release inhibitor (either ESN or Agrotain). This helped to have nitrogen available to the wheat plant when the seed was filling to improve protein content. Many of the split applications involved applying nitrogen at flag leaf or later when the plant can use it for protein formation.  Keep in mind if initial applications of nitrogen are insufficient, late applications will be used to fill the plants’ requirement for yield before being used to build protein.

Another common management practice used by growers making protein this year was sulphur application. Sulphur is a building block for protein and a key ingredient in the formation of chlorophyll. With less sulphur available from acid rain, sulphur deficiency is becoming more common (approximately .1 lbs of suIphur is removed per bushel of wheat harvested).

managing results
Biehn says the key is to limit your acres to what you can manage intensively. This year he only planted 120 acres of Hard Red Winter wheat. However, the price premiums associated with the higher protein levels were his incentive to spend the extra time on fewer acres.

“My highest return – my maximum net dollar return from the whole farm profile – has always been from wheat,” claims Biehn. “Last year my gross return per acre, including selling the straw, was a thousand dollars an acre.”

Not everyone has the same perspective as Biehn. Omland says he’s seen a growing trend over the past few years where fewer farmers are achieving the 11 percent protein level the market wants. He’s now seeing Hard Red Winter wheat with as little as nine percent protein.

“That’s creating a little bit of uncertainty in the market,” Omland says. “Uncertainty leads to risk and bids which can be relatively less than what they would have been.”

Todd Austin, Marketing Manager for Grain Farmers of Ontario, agrees the low protein content is becoming an issue. “Under 10.5 percent, it’s an unknown market. We don’t know where it’s going to go because it’s not what millers are looking for.”

“If we end up getting more and more low protein, there will come a time when there won’t be a premium price for Hard Red Winter wheat,” Austin adds. “And at that point it won’t make sense for a farmer to grow Hard Red Winter when they could grow Soft Red Winter and get higher yields.”

For now, Hard Red Winter wheat remains a premium product, but a loud and clear message is coming from the end users about the level of protein they want from it. Omland says that could lead to a shift in the way it’s marketed. “There are two roads we could take. We could bid for wheat with no minimum protein level, which would create lower prices overall; or a minimum protein level could be put into contracts.”

Omland acknowledges the balancing act farmers face with Hard Red Winter wheat, but believes they can achieve high yields with guaranteed protein levels. “We remain excited over Hard Red Winter wheat because there is a huge demand for it.”

If Ontario growers don’t provide what the market wants, Austin says it could be a lost opportunity given the huge local market. “Western growers are hitting the Hard Red Winter wheat markets and meeting protein requirements.”

Austin cautions there isn’t one growing system that works for everyone. Using nitrogen management practices won’t guarantee that you get protein; however, it will increase your odds of getting it. •

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