Wheat planting season is here and some fields are already starting to emerge in spite of the rather hot, dry conditions. Wheat and for those grazing it – rye. Why did hard red winter wheat (HRWW) become the king of Kansas crops for so many years?
1. HRWW is great for bread and cookie baking so the market is there. Over time hard white winter wheat acreage will increase as better varieties become available since most of the world finds whole HRWW flour bitter but it is essentially HRWW without the tannins that turn it reddish. The tannins help prevent head sprouting but provide the bitter taste.
2. HRWW has a life cycle that fits the average climate fairly well. Winters are cold but typically not severe for extended periods of time. The most productive rains fall on average when the plant flowers and produces seed. On the down side, HRWW typically doesn’t reach its potential yield as conditions generally turn hot, rushing maturity. As many a breeder has said. “We don’t finish wheat. We kill it.”
3. Other winter wheat such as such as soft red don’t fit as our climate is too harsh and our pest profile normally hurts quality and yield. The same is true for spring wheat. While it will grow here, the heat and pest pressure hurt test weight and yields even if they don’t hurt yield.
4. HRWW is a grass, not a broadleaf, so it has a fairly shallow fibrous root system as opposed to broadleaf crops such as winter canola which has a tap root and fewer smaller roots. Even though we remember major precipitation events, most rains in our area are less than a quarter inch. They don’t penetrate deeply into the soil so a shallow fibrous root system can more effectively take advantage of the rain that does fall.
5. As a grass, the growing point for HRWW is below the soil surface until jointing in the spring and therefore better protected over the winter. Broadleaf crops like canola at emergence have the growing point at or above the soil surface. This leaves them much more vulnerable to damage or destruction which would kill the young plant. It’s also why we can graze HRWW and rye. The leaf growth is above the growing point, not below it so grazing until the growing point is above the soil surface won’t damage the plant.
6. The one thing that isn’t true is that wheat is super water efficient. It takes approximately 150 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. The water savings are in lower yields requiring less water compare to something like corn. And naturally the amount needed varies by plant health and conditions.
There is more but these are the major reasons why HRWW gained in popularity when Turkey Red was brought over in the 1870s.