LANSING — Dennis Pennington’s walked hundreds of wheat fields in Michigan.
Despite winter-kill and a plethora of fungal diseases affecting various fields, Pennington said “growers are actually … a little bit more optimistic about their yields” compared to what they were thinking during the spring.
Some optimistic news is a welcome sign for Michigan agriculture, which is coming off one of its wettest seasons on record. According to Pennington, the cool and wet spring that made for planting difficulties in corn and soybeans is “actually good (news) for wheat.”
Data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service projects Michigan wheat production up 8 percent from 2018 due to an increase in planned harvest acreage.
Still, ag experts say wheat is two weeks behind harvest schedule, which is positioning farmers in a wait-and-see game of actual yield results.
“(Farmers’) wheat was slow to develop last fall because it was cold and wet, so it was even hard to get planted, and a lot of it did not grow and develop in the fall even if it was planted early. So we had kind of poor development in the crop overall coming into the spring. We had a bunch of winter-kill and water damage,” said Pennington, wheat systems specialist for Michigan State University Extension.
“We are going to be below the state average for yield, but it won’t be as bad as people thought.”
Bill Hunt plants 350 acres of wheat at the Genessee County-based Hunt Farms Inc. He’s one of the many farmers who wasn’t able to plant his red wheat on time.
It’s a problem he pins on planting delays with his soybean crop.
“You're supposed to plant your wheat in September and preferably before the 25th of September, if possible. We didn't plant our wheat until about the 10th of October,” Hunt told Michigan Farm News. “So, right there, we already were under the gun. … And so, that's the first thing that happened — is we got the wheat in late. It went into the ground and then it did not come up right away because you planted it in less than perfect conditions.”
Now, instead of harvesting 100 bushels of wheat an acre, Hunt said wheat yields could be 70 bushels per acre this year.
“I'm saying you can knock 25, 30 bushel off your yield easily,” he said. “But, again, wheat is kind of deceiving.”
Winter-kill and Vomitoxins — Oh, My
One major concern from wheat growers is winter-kill, which occurs when wheat stands do not germinate because of the wet fall or cold winter. According to Hunt, who serves on the state’s wheat checkoff board, Michigan farmers could’ve lost roughly 20 percent of their crop in 2019 because of winter-killing.
“I don’t expect wheat production to be up in the state because there was a lot of winter-kill,” said Theresa Sisung, associate field crops specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “It’s field by field, depending on when it got put in. It was so wet in the fall, and it was such a cold winter.”
According to Pennington, Southeast Michigan and central Michigan had some of the hardest hit farms by winter-kill. In particular, Pennington said a field in Lenawee County sustained so much winter kill and water damage that his team “abandoned” the plot.
“My best guess based on just what I've seen is probably 12% to 15% of the Michigan wheat crop was destroyed (because of winter kill),” Pennington said. “Once we get to harvest and whatnot, then we'll have a better idea.”
Michigan typically specializes in growing red or white winter wheat. Oftentimes, producers take wheat to grain elevators where the product is stored until it’s needed for food processing. There, it’s grounded into flour at a mill.
According to Sisung, white wheat is more susceptible to higher vomitoxin levels, which could affect wheat quality. Vomitoxin, she said, is a toxin that may be produced in wheat when infected by head scab. Head scab typically occurs when it is wet during flowering and grain fill, but a field that was infected with head scab may not necessarily have high vomitoxin levels. High vomitoxin levels can affect flavors and processing performance for wheat used for human consumption and can be harmful to animals being fed wheat.
“That (white wheat) goes into your pastries and cookies,” Sisung said. “At the millers’ meeting in June, that was one thing the millers were concerned about. It will affect them. … and if there are quality issues, it will affect the end users.”
The quality of wheat is definitely a concern among growers in 2019, according to Pennington, noting that about 70% of the wheat grown in Michigan is red variety.
“For one, disease has been rampant out there,” he said. “All of that moisture has been conducive for all kinds of different diseases that develop including Septoria … and leaf rust. Diseases definitely cause yield reduction because of that. So, farmers who have resistant varieties planted will do better for that reason.”
According to Hunt, picking the right wheat variety — red or white — can make all the difference.
“Well, I've always been a red wheat guy,” Hunt said. “From the years past, I've had problems with the white wheat, finding a buyer for it, because there was always something wrong. That was before we had falling numbers. You know, vomitoxin was always in white and didn't seem to be in the red. They didn't check the red; they always checked the white. I ended up taking a hit, so I just said, ‘I'm going to raise wheat, but I don't want the hassle.’
“That’s why I've been a red wheat guy.”