Minnesota wheat interests explore their future

What is the future of wheat in Minnesota? First of all, if there is to be one, it rests primarily with spring wheat as the winter hardiness trait is lacking in winter wheat varieties that could be successfully planted in the northern counties. Se...

What is the future of wheat in Minnesota?

First of all, if there is to be one, it rests primarily with spring wheat as the winter hardiness trait is lacking in winter wheat varieties that could be successfully planted in the northern counties.

Secondly, the current primary use of wheat is flour. It's competition -- corn and soybeans -- have multiple uses.

But there other possibilities to keep wheat a major crop in Minnesota, rather than watching it fall into the minor category, as now evidenced by barley and oats.

Those are some of the conclusions arrived at during the "Wheat Summit" in Moorhead Wednesday.


The afternoon-long program was hosted by the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers and Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council.

It attracted wheat farmers, companies that utilize wheat, university specialists and even Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson.

"The ultimatum here is either do we look at finding new uses for wheat product or changing what we are growing here in our region," commented Hugoson in an interview.

"Certainly, that has been happening anyway with the corn and soybean movement that's going on. Probably the jury is still out in terms of some those alternative uses, whether we are talking ethanol made from either a high starch wheat or a biomass combination wheat and wheat straw, or are there other things that can be developed that would utilize this product."

Because of factors beyond wheat farmers' control, such as commodity prices and input expenses, there has been a steadily increasing switch from spring wheat in Minnesota to corn and soybeans.

Program topics include alternative wheat uses, planting winter wheat and biotech wheat, which could lessen problems with plant diseases, or creating a winter wheat variety capable of being used on a large scale basis in Minnesota, for example.

With U.S. ethanol production rising on a monthly basis, some attention is being directed at using wheat as a feedstock. Corn is the primary source for U.S. ethanol, but there are suggestions that production be expanded to other types of feedstock, such as sugar and switchgrass.

A plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, has been producing ethanol from wheat for 15 years. The plant was established next to a cattle feedlot that had been operating 15 years previously, according to Pound-Maker Agventures, Ltd. plant manager Keith Rueve.


"We feel it is viable in our size because we're connecting an ethanol plant along with a feedlot. All of the byproduct produced is used in the wet form by the adjacent feedlot," explained Rueve.

Another Saskatchewan ethanol plant will come on-line this summer, also using wheat as the feedstock. The province has a retail gasoline sales mandate of a 1 percent ethanol blend, which increases to 7.5 percent this summer when the new plant begins operation.

Rueve said more Canadian ethanol plants are proposed, most being stand-alone operations. These plants would rely on wheat, which is the dominant crop in Canada. The livestock feed byproducts from those plants would be dried and shipped to customers.

Rueve said the Pound-Maker plant has shown that wheat can be used for ethanol, but the commodity's price is a primary factor.

"Wheat at $2 and $3 a bushel can make an ethanol plant profitable," said Rueve. "If wheat jumps to $5 a bushel that's a different story."

Should Canadian wheat become too expensive, Rueve said the plant can switch to corn so the ethanol produced there remains affordable.

Joel Ransom, a plant geneticist at North Dakota State University, Fargo, said the winter wheat varieties grown in South Dakota and Montana lack the hardiness trait needed in northern Minnesota.

He said biotech research needed to create such varieties that are resistant to such diseases as fusarium head blight (scab), tan spot and rust.


Ransom said a hard white winter wheat has niche potential, but researchers are several years away from having a variety available on a commercial scale.

"There is a lot of work to be done with diseases," stressed Ransom.

Gordon Cisar of Great Lakes Cereal Grains said the U.S. wheat industry may have to consider other purposes for wheat, such as a plow down for soil fertility, sell the straw or ethanol production.

Cisar said another crop alternative is triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. It can be grazed, ensiled and used as feed grain for hogs and poultry. However, triticale is susceptible to scab.

Warroad farmer Art Brandli, an MWRPC board member, said Minnesota wheat is primarily grown in the Red River Valley region. Over the past 12 years, he said 1 million acres of wheat production has been lost to other commodities (corn, soybeans and sugarbeets).

Brandli said wheat faces challenges from price and disease, with few alternative uses. He would like that to change. He urged the mapping of the wheat gnome so problems like disease are more easily solved.

Brandli said biotechnology is a component of 56 crops grown annually in the United States, primarily canola, corn, cotton and soybeans.

He suggested five courses of action: commercialize biotech wheat; higher yielding wheat varieties; ethanol made from wheat; reduce production costs, combined with conservation practices; and create incentives for alternate uses of wheat.


Brandli noted that Minnesota wheat farmers signed letters of support in Jaunary advocating biotech wheat research.

Cargill spokesperson Terry Garvert said U.S. corn and soybean producers are benefitting from the renewable fuels program.

Garvert said biotechnology has a role in grain production. Last year, there were 1 billion acres worldwide of biotech crops, including 123 million U.S. acres.

He said Cargill emphasizes that customers should be free to choose between genetically modified organism crops and non-GMO crops, but biotechnology has a large role in modern agriculture. The privately owned company advocates scientific-based worldwide standards, with zero tolerance of GMO crops unwittingly mixed with non-GMO stocks as unrealistic.

Still, he said farmers can easily segregate the two crops via on-farm storage for later sales.

General Mills vice president Ron Olson said biotechnology is vital to ensuring the survivability of crops. He said retail sales of GMO crops will be largely dictated by major retailers, such as Wal-Mart, although consumers remain the driving force.

For that reason, Olson said biotechnology is an issue that publicly owned food manufacturers must recognize when purchasing ingredients for their retail products.

Olson said it is vital that wheat continue to be produced, although for some companies it isn't necessarily important where wheat is grown.


Hugoson said universities and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute at Crookston are researching alternative uses for wheat. Energy is a bright spot for agriculture, with consideration of using wheat for ethanol production, noted Hugoson.

However, he said switchgrass is currently a better alternative than wheat as an ethanol feedstock. He said the best choice is sugarcane, but that can't be grown in the northern states.

Hugoson summarized the Wheat Summit as being a "clearinghouse" for information, with discussions to continue in future weeks.

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