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Grain yields surprisingly good in 2012

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 11/28/2012 8:33 AM

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CROOKSTON, Minn. — It wasn't a record breaker, but small grains specialist Jochum Wiersma says the yields on wheat and other 2012 crops were surprising.

"This year, everyone was fearful of the drought — with good reason," said Wiersma, a researcher at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston. "We had just enough timely rains to carry the crop. We didn't have a record breaking year, but we had a really nice year with nice quality wheat for most people."

In his report on wheat, barley and oat variety performance in Minnesota, Wiersma recalled the dry conditions farmers faced going into the crop year. The last substantive rains fell in late August 2011, he said. A very dry fall and winter followed with little snow cover for most of the winter.

Temperatures were mild enough to allow for the first wheat seeding by mid-March.

It seemed uncanny to find 18 percent of oats, 6 percent of spring barley and 3 percent of spring wheat planted by the end of March.

By May 1, 54 percent of the state's topsoil was rated at short or very short for moisture with 68 percent of the subsoil moisture supplies rated as either short to very short. Timely rains brought some drought relief.

Minnesota's wheat yield averaged 57 bushel per acre, just one bushel shy of Minnesota's record. While hard red spring wheat crop quality was slightly below in average test weight, the grain had higher protein content and larger kernels than the 2011 crop.

Despite the drought, timely rains helped wheat reach the good yields. Varietal selection was a big factor.

Wiersma is known throughout the state for his research on small grains varieties. He's often the main speaker at public field workshops, walking through varietal plots while discussing the pros and cons of each variety.

Plant development and breeding has always intrigued him. His interest started on his family's farm in the Netherlands, which was located next to a sugar beet research facility. Wiersma's intention was to farm, but his parents encouraged him to get an education first. Once at college, he was hooked on plant development.

He attended Wageningen University in the Netherlands, did an internship in Mexico and came to the University of Minnesota for his graduate degree. He became a U.S. citizen and joined the University of Minnesota Extension's team focusing on small grains.

Through his 17 years as a small grains specialist, Wiersma has seen a shift in the types of crops. Northern Minnesota, once known for its wheat production, turned to corn and soybeans after the area suffered a severe infestation of fusarium head blight in wheat.

Although wheat acres have declined, the infrastructure for it and small grains remains strong, he said.

Small grains can be an important tool in the cropping system and can break up disease patterns that can become prevalent in mono-cropping.

"But you still have to make wheat work," he said. "You still have to pencil it out."

With varietal trials located throughout the state, farmers can pick the varieties that are a good fit for their growing area.

"Successful small grain production begins with selection of the best varieties for a particular farm or field," he said.

That's where the varietal trail come in. The Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station sites at St. Paul, Rosemount, Waseca, Lamberton, Morris and Crookston provides opportunities for field trials. The trials, also conducted by farmer-cooperators, provide producers with a good idea who certain varieties will perform in a given region.

Like corn and soybeans, small grains will respond positively when given good care and attention.

"If you work at it, you will do good by it," he said. "If you make wheat an afterthought, it will be an afterthought."