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Wheat Farmers Bested County Averages in National Contest

By Pamela Smith

Don't let Marc Arnusch tell you he's not competitive. While cutting winter wheat this season, he hit a honey hole in the field where the yield seemed exceptionally good. His son, Brett, had already turned in his entry for the National Wheat Yield Contest, but Arnusch thought this spot might be a bit better. He wasn't wrong. The Keenesburg, Colorado, farmer bested his son's entry to win first place in the National Wheat Yield Contest category that compares yield to others in the county where it is grown.

This category of the wheat contest levels the fields for farmers producing wheat in areas that have more challenging growing conditions and gives them a barometer of their improvements. The contest compares dryland entries on the percentage by which their measured yield exceeds the most recent five-year Olympic average for that county. Now in its eighth year, the yield contest organized by the National Wheat Foundation (NWF) is designed to encourage wheat growers to strive for high yield, quality and profit while trying new and innovative management strategies. DTN/Progressive Farmer is the official media outlet of the competition.

Arnusch's hard red winter wheat variety, Limagrain Helix AX, yielded 130.69 bushels per acre (bpa), which is 330.5% more than the 30.36 bpa yield typical for Weld County, Colorado. Austin Kautzman of Mott, North Dakota, hauled home the winning hard red spring wheat entry in the percentage above county category with 119.94 bpa of WestBred 9606, which calculated at 273% more than the 32.19 bpa yield typical of Grant County.

What is remarkable about the top winning entries is the weather each farmer experienced. While many Wheat Belt states dealt with drought, Arnusch and Kautzman, who both farm in arid regions, were blessed with unusual amounts of rainfall.

"Because of all the rain we had, none of our crop was irrigated this year," said Arnusch, who recorded 19 inches of rain from May 1 through harvest. "Frankly, I'm not sure there was any yield difference between dryland and irrigated wheat in our county this season."

To make that statement more telling, in 2022, Arnusch Farms experienced drought conditions so severe that some wheat acres were abandoned. "In a state where drought is around every corner, we also know they don't last forever," Arnusch said. "What makes this year so super sweet is that we were coming off one of the worst crops I've ever had in my farming career to one of the best. What a rush of emotions that is," he acknowledged. "It means things can and do change."

Kautzman can confirm the yield blessings bestowed by additional moisture. "Our little area of southwest North Dakota had the wettest and most humid year I can remember with so many dewy, foggy mornings. And, because of it, we had record-breaking wheat, record-breaking canola and record-breaking corn," said Kautzman. "It was also a cool summer for us, so everything filled just as full as it could." Kautzman said it was like the state flipped sides because the southeastern area of the state endured unusually dry conditions this season.

Travis Freeburg also gives abundant rainfall the credit for his third-place finish in percent over county winter wheat category. The Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, wheat grower grew 118.24 bpa of PlainsGold Brawl CL Plus, which yielded a 295% boost over the 29.97 bpa average for Kimball County, Nebraska, where the field was located.

About 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, near Wellston, Oklahoma, David Ebers can attest to wheat's reputation for multiple lives. He took fifth place in the dryland winter wheat percentage above county average category with a crop that started with a dry fall and very dry winter. His hard red winter wheat variety WestBred 4699 yielded 114.88 bpa, which is 204% above the Seminole County average of 37.8 bpa.

"There were some stretches in there where the wheat looked rough, especially on sandy soils," Ebers told DTN. "But one thing that really stood out about the season is we had a long spring, and we didn't just go from cold to hot. It seemed that we had a longer grain fill period."

For Ebers, it was something of a "Goldilocks season." Rains were just enough but not too much, and they came just in time. A nitrogen credit from a failed corn crop provided an extra boost. Predominately a corn and cotton farmer, this was the first wheat crop Ebers had raised in four years. Corn basis is stronger in this region, and it has displaced wheat for many. But he's moved back to some wheat acres for the rotational benefits.


Arnusch Farms sits on the rim of the Prospect Valley about 45 minutes east of Denver. Nighttime temperatures are 3 to 5 degrees cooler in the valley than surrounding areas, and that environment favors growing specialty grains such as wheat and barley for the craft beer and spirits industry. Nearly all the farm's acres are irrigated.

A look back at the farm's performance in the National Wheat Yield Contest tells the importance of rainfall. In 2019, Arnusch Farms took top honors in the irrigated winter wheat category with a 210.52 bpa entry, the second-highest recorded in the contest that year. Their winter dryland wheat entry topped the Colorado contest at 120.9 bpa that same year. In 2020, the farm recorded contest entries of 79.5 bpa in the dryland winter wheat category and 161.8 bpa irrigated.

Then came the dry. In 2021, dryland yields fell to the 20 bpa range. As the drought continued in 2022, some dryland acres were abandoned, and others yielded a mere 7 bpa.

Things began to turn around in fall 2022. The contest field was planted into fallow. Rains led to quick establishment, good tillering and an extended growing period. In fact, Arnusch worried about the wheat getting too big going into winter.

Squeaking out a victory over his son, who placed second in the same category with a yield of 130.64 bpa, has caused more than a little good-natured ribbing between the two farmers. They also consider Casey Cantwell's fourth place win of 229% over the Weld County average to be a reason to celebrate. Cantwell farmed with the Arnusch family until he and his wife began their own farming enterprise.

The Helix AX variety is an Arnusch Farms favorite. "It's a tough variety and tolerates Aggressor AX herbicides (Group 1/ACCase chemistry) to control problematic grasses," Arnusch said. "It's been looked at as a tool to manage weeds such as rye and cheatgrass. And we've found it to be good for top-end yield, both irrigated and dryland, and that's why we choose to plant it on a lot of our acres." It was seeded on 7.5-inch spacings at a targeted seeding rate of 850,000 or roughly 55 pounds per acre.

With cation exchange capacity (CEC) values ranging from 18 to 26, the farm's soil has a high capacity for holding nitrogen (N). The farm has access to manure from a nearby dairy, and the nitrogen credit from organic matter was around 90 to 100 pounds available, Arnusch said.

"I estimate 8 pounds of N from each 1% organic matter, so credited 20 to 24 pounds of N from organic matter. Our postmortem samples indicate we were close to being on the money," he said. Additional nutrients applied to this winning crop included 10 pounds N, 6 pounds phosphorus (P) and 75 pounds zinc per acre.

"My rule of thumb is 0.7 pounds of N for each 64-pound test weight bushel we target to produce. If we can get 4 to 5 pounds of extra test weight and add the optimum number of heads, that translates to yield," he said. Pushing N can help increase protein content, but also creates late-season lodging concerns.

"It takes 20% of my budget to drive the last 5% of yield, so I'd rather optimize fertility by selecting varieties that will tiller and elongate heads when conditions are great," Arnusch added. "When conditions aren't great, I find our yields are on par with everyone else. But when the stars align, we blow the doors off yield potential."

Fungicides were his friend this year, too. "It wouldn't quit raining, but we found some spray windows and did a really good job of protecting this crop. Our protein content was excellent, and I'm hopeful that we are going to see some quality out of this milled crop," he said.

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