Wheat Foundation plans national yield contest

The 2015 spring wheat crop is planted in southeast Idaho. The National Wheat Foundation is reviving a U.S. yield competition to drive innovation in the industry.

The National Wheat Foundation plans to revive a nationwide wheat yield competition, hoping it will drive grower innovation and lead to improved production methods.

The industry last hosted a yield competition in 1993, said National Wheat Foundation Chairman Dusty Tallman.

Tallman said the foundation — a sister organization of the National Association of Wheat Growers tasked with wheat promotion and education — hopes to iron out rules in April and have the contest ready for winter wheat planted this fall. Companies including John Deere, BASF and Monsanto have already agreed to be partners.

The foundation met in January in Washington, D.C., for its first contest organizational meeting.

Tallman said U.S. corn and soybean growers have learned from top growers in their own yield competitions, which have spurred the implementation of cutting-edge production methods into more fields.

“The reason we want to do this is to help drive innovation in the industry,” Tallman said. “We look at what corn has done with increases in their yields. Wheat yields have continued to grow, but it’s a fraction of corn.”

The National Corn Growers Association awards trophies to the top three growers in each of six classes — based on soil type, irrigation or dryland and tillage — for each corn state. Rachel Jungermann-Orf, manager of the corn yield competition, said 415 growers were recognized as winners in 2014, and seed and equipment companies offered special prizes to winning producers who used their products.

The association requires minimum 10-acre plots, and many growers later expand practices used in their contest plots to their other commercial plots, she said. In 2014, she said six corn contest growers topped 400 bushels per acre.

“It’s a good trial and error for them,” Jungermann-Orf said, adding the contest also highlights hybrid advances made by seed companies.

Tallman said the wheat competition will likely be divided by region, with subcategories for irrigated or dryland, winter or spring planting and the six different wheat classes. He hopes land-grant universities will get involved and share their latest research with growers seeking to push yields.

Travis Jones, executive director of Idaho Grain Producers Association, said Idaho should be competitive, both on dryland farms in the Northern Panhandle and irrigated farms in the south and east. Jones said Idaho’s wheat industry has advocated for quality as a contest parameter.

Wheat Foundation board member Wayne Hurst, of Burley, Idaho, said U.S. wheat growers averaged in the mid-30s for bushels per acre when he was in high school, and today, that average remains in the low-40s.

In 2008, Hurst said the foundation set a goal of improving wheat yields by 20 percent over the course of a decade, and the competition is part of the effort to “send a clear signal to private researchers throughout the country that wheat growers are finally serious about improving yields.”

Idaho Wheat Commission research director Cathy Wilson has been hosting informal meetings with researchers, growers and industry sources for its own effort to boost yields, called the 200 Bushel Club.

“Growers tend to listen to what other growers are doing,” Wilson said.

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