Farmers consider costs, returns with wheat choices

Northeast Texas wheat farmers face an annual dilemma: They make significantly better yields planting soft red winter wheat but they get more money per bushel of grain with hard red winter varieties.

“Back in the mid-1980s we planted a lot of hard wheat in this area,” said Grayson County farmer Eric Akins. “We switched to mostly soft wheat because of yield.” But Akins, along with a number of other wheat farmers in this Northeast corner of Texas, tried some hard wheat varieties last year, hoping to pick up enough extra on price to make up for a little less yield and the extra cost of disease control.

“We tried some hard wheat last year and we had some mildew problems,” Akins said. But yields were close enough to soft wheat varieties that he increased the hard variety ratio this year. “I planted about two-thirds of my acreage in hard wheat,” he said. “That’s opposite of what most farmers planted.”

He said hard red winter wheat typically brings from 20 cents to 50 cents a bushel more than soft varieties. But mildew and other diseases hit those varieties harder. Making a good yield with the hard wheat usually means adding a fungicide spray to production costs.

“I have not seen as much mildew so far as I did last year,” Akins said, “but the wheat is not as lush. Wheat on poorly drained soils are not performing as well as on better soils. We’ve had a lot of rain.”

He was not planning to apply a fungicide with a February topdressing but will be ready to apply one at the boot stage, if necessary.

Jack Norman, who farms in Grayson, Hunt and Fannin counties, planted 20 percent of his acreage in hard wheat varieties last year. He maintained that balance for the 2004-2005 crop.

“A lot of us have looked at hard red varieties,” he said. “We have a few more problems with diseases and have to spray for mildew and rust on the hard wheat.” He said farmers “probably” have to count on spraying hard wheat “if they want to make a decent crop. With soft varieties, it’s a fifty-fifty proposition.”

Norman figures he makes from 5 to 10 more bushels per acre from soft wheat varieties. “It’s almost an even deal. I get fewer bushels with hard wheat but the price is better, from 30 cents to 40 cents higher and then we have to spray it more often.” He said he does better with hard wheat in Grayson County then he does in counties he farms that are further east and where humidity typically runs higher.

“Years ago, in the mid-1980s, we planted a hard variety, NK812, that performed as well as or better than soft wheat. And we had no price differential then. Unfortunately, the Hessian fly took it out.”

Hard wheat garners a better price because of demand. Baking characteristics are better in hard wheat, Norman said. “But sometimes my soft wheat varieties will grade hard. Weather conditions affect how they grade. I hope we can find a hard wheat that will perform well in this area.”

He says when wheat prices are good, growers see little incentive to plant hard varieties. If we have to invest $20 in the crop, we have too little wiggle room,” he said. “If we can get by with $10, we may be OK. Most of us have spray rigs so we can apply fungicides ourselves.”

Glynn Dodson grows wheat, corn and grain sorghum near Royse City, Texas. He’s sticking with soft red winter wheat. “I can usually make 15 bushels per acre more with soft wheat,” Dodson said. And he gets about as much for soft as he would for hard varieties. “I sell most of my wheat to the flour mill so I won’t have an advantage growing hard. I’ve made good quality wheat the last few years.”

Dodson says if wheat goes into the loan, the price differential hits farmers who grow soft varieties hard. And the gap changes throughout the year. In mid February, Dodson said the Kansas City Board of Trade price for hard red winter wheat was $3.08 and soft was bringing $3.00. “But that’s not what the farmer would get,” he said. “It’s too cheap.”

Akins says the increase in hard red winter wheat acreage in the area may have boosted the price for soft wheat.

Jim Swart, Extension integrated pest management specialist based at Texas A&M-Commerce, said farmers have tried several varieties of hard and soft varieties in the past few years.

Swart said variety trials last year showed a new hard wheat, 2145 out of Kansas, to be the best of the HRWWs, with 81.2 bushels per acre. “That wheat variety tolerated mildew better,” he said.

A crucial part of the annual variety trials in the area is to test for disease tolerance. Swart said of the three Northeast Texas locations where hard and soft winter wheat varieties were evaluated “one had light rust pressure, one had heavy pressure and one suffered severe stripe and leaf rust pressure.”

Below are highlights of SRWW and HRWW trials. Of the three comparison locations in Northeast Texas, one was harvested on May 27, one on June 15 and one on July 8 because of adverse harvest conditions. Both quality and yield were affected.

Swart said many wheat growers in the region, this year, planted significantly less acreage than desired because of heavy fall rains.

“Some areas got less than 40 percent of intended acreage in,” he said. Akins got “within 200 acres of planned acreage planted. We had a narrow window to get it in,” he said. “A lot of folks did not get all they wanted planted.”

Akins planted a few acres as late as Dec. 21.

Norman says he got most of his intended acreage in. “We have a good stand. The crop tillered well and we have a chance to make a decent crop if we get good weather from here on.”

He said Grayson County farmers got most of their intended acreage planted. Fannin growers planted only about one-fourth of planned acreage. Hunt County put in about 40 percent of intentions.

Dodson says he seeded all the wheat he had planned on. “We got it all it in about seven days,” he said “It looks good now. We put 150 pounds of 32 percent nitrogen solution on it before it started raining and that made all the difference in the world.”

Swart said wheat planted on well-drained soils has stood up well under the unusually wet conditions. Poorly drained fields have not fared as well. “But we still have time to make a good crop,” he said.

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