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The protein advantage

In wheat, it can still pay to shoot for a protein-building combination of management, timing and a little luck

Among the mental pictures we associate with wheat, one of the more tantalizing depicts the healthy goodness of a basket of loaves of bread and different types of buns. Although it’s not the traditional vision of acres of wheat ripening in the sun, it’s still what the exercise is all about, producing top-quality food for the planet.

But in farming, we also know that there are quality challenges that go into making those baked goods.

Most diners take quality for granted until it becomes an issue as it did late in 2017, when the Gonella Baking Co. in suburban Milwaukee, found that low protein wheat was resulting in less-than-ideal buns for its customers. According to a report from BroadGrain last December, the baker discarded more than US$20,000 in substandard products because they lacked the “airy” texture desired by their customers, i.e. baseball fans at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

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It was much the same story for the entire bakery industry across the U.S. — a sector worth $23 billion, and it brought home a problem that was peaking at the time, when the market was struggling under high global stocks of wheat with less-than-suitable quality for specific baking purposes.

It’s an ongoing issue in agriculture and reflects a growing disconnect between farmers, buyers, end-users and the consuming public. One grower theorizes that mills and bakeries don’t completely grasp the role of the environment and its impact on production, failing to understand that what happens on paper doesn’t always translate to field-scale production.

A grower can manage wheat for top protein quality by split-applying nitrogen and scouting and protecting against fusarium head blight, rust, chickweed and dandelions, only to have an untimely downpour denitrify their soil and drop protein levels.

A lot of that has to do with the bakers not being adaptable to whatever is available to use.” – Andy Wilder, Parrish & Heimbecker
photo: Katerina Sergeevna/iStock/Getty Images

And then there’s the volatile nature of the marketplace. If one grower hits high protein levels, it’s likely that everyone else will too, making high-protein wheat an abundant commodity. But that’s the way of farming: when you have protein, it isn’t in demand. When no one has protein, the market searches the world to find it, ready to pay a premium — albeit reluctantly.

Unfortunately, there’s also a communications gap that has formed in the value chain. A protein shortage in wheat is something growers and seed companies understand, but bakers may not be aware it exists. Although there are efforts to help millers find a solution, it’s still a food-value chain that operates on a least-cost basis. Brokers and buyers must source the least expensive wheat for their customers, but concerns about the quality of that wheat may not be a key consideration.

A cross-country issue

Part of the issue with protein in wheat is the evolution towards “what’s easiest” to grow. Crush soybeans and grain corn are the simpler route to higher revenues, particularly in an era where farm sizes are increasing. Those willing to manage at a higher level for premiums will do just that. For the rest, there are still plenty of opportunities for filling the needs of processors and manufacturers.

Where wheat differs is in its multi-functional capacity, with so many different classes and a wider list of uses. Soft red winter wheat is the acreage leader in Eastern Canada, with some soft white winter and hard red winter and spring. Although hard red wheat is the go-to class for high-protein users, it’s grown less because of its reputation as a “yield robber.”

“That’s because it takes more energy to make protein than it does to make starch,” says Peter Johnson, an independent adviser and a former provincial cereals specialist. “If I have ‘x’ amount of photosynthate and I use more of it to make protein and less to make starch, I get less yield. It’s been a challenge to make a high-protein, high-yield wheat, and since yield tends to trump protein, we’ve gone more towards soft red and less toward hard red.”

Lower specificity

In the past five years, there have been a number of key drivers in the wheat market: the end of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), the discontinuation of kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) and a resulting influx of U.S.-bred varieties.

According to Andy Wilder, wheat merchant with Parrish & Heimbecker, all of these have led to a generalization in wheat, including a new class created by the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) called General Northern. The CGC has tried to isolate those varieties that were known to be a problem in terms of gluten strength, putting them into a class of general purpose varieties. With the departure of the CWB, U.S.-bred varieties that are part of the same general purpose class are joining the lower-quality, higher-yielding varieties grown in the West.

“We grow higher-protein wheat in the West and a lot of the overseas customers use that to blend with lower-quality wheat from other origins in the world,” says Wilder. “They’re not using our wheat in its entirety to create products. The North American baking industry, however, does use our Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat or hard red spring (dark red northern (DNS)) to make products.”

For the most part, the trend in wheat production is a “simple is best and more is better” approach, which may have its advantages. Wilder notes most growers want to grow soft red and “be done with it,” similar to crush soybeans. That way, there’s no protein risk, no need for split applications and fewer concerns about an untimely rain washing away a late nitrogen application.

It’s also coinciding with a decline in the market for conventional pan breads (from bakers like Wonder, Ben’s, Old Mill, etc.). Those tend to be formulaic and less forgiving, with a fine-set crumb structure (fewer holes in the bread). By contrast, artisanal breads may have greater leeway with what can be added or blended.

“A lot of that has to do with the bakers not being adaptable to whatever is available to use,” says Wilder. “What I find ironic is that some of the best-selling breads out there are artisanal breads — like baguettes baked in-store — which are a blend of Western wheat and Ontario hard red winter. You don’t need to have western Canadian wheat to create a very good and saleable product that the consumer wants to buy.”

Consumer trends have impact

Another reason for the trend away from hard reds in Eastern Canada is that it’s so much easier to grow the varieties in Western Canada, where the drier Prairie climate tends to favour protein production. That’s been the case for about 15 years, and during that time, there’s been a disconnect between processors, millers and the bakery sector.

Since the mid-2000s, gluten strength in many varieties has been weakening, a function of an industry that’s allowed the registration of varieties that yield more but may be less favourable in quality for specific end-users. And because yield is the truest measure of success among most growers, gluten strength has continued to decline.

It’s worth noting that last December, in the search for an answer to substandard products, bakers at Gonella Baking began tinkering with hotter temperatures to create the desired airiness. They finally succeeded by adding gluten to the process.

Different uses

Another factor that confounds the chase for higher protein hard red wheat is the variety of products that use flour. Compared to bread or pastry, higher protein levels are not necessary for a denser product like pasta. It’s similar to soft white winter wheat grown primarily in Michigan and Ontario for breakfast cereals and baby foods. Breading, stuffing and batter mixes each demand distinct characteristics in the wheat flour used. There are even cases of importers settling for what they can get, where a buyer in Egypt demands 11 per cent protein but accepts Ukrainian wheat that’s 10.5 per cent, only because Canadian growers are providing 9.0 per cent.

“On the other hand, if growers are going to deliver soft red wheat to ADM at Port Colborne, they don’t want 11 per cent soft red — they want 9.5 per cent,” says Johnson. “And there’s a mill in Montreal that will not take your soft red if it’s above 10 per cent, because that’s too high for the end-use they’re after. This protein game is complicated. And it’s not only protein quantity, it’s protein quality: Ardent Mills in Streetsville wants a particular quality of protein, where the key is its lactic acid retention.”

If there’s a similar market situation to hard red wheat, it’s in identity-preserved (IP) soybeans or edible beans. Both are quality-based markets and dependent on higher levels of management on the part of growers. In the production of hard red winter and spring wheat, Parrish & Heimbecker has stepped up its support of quality-based wheat production. Now in its fourth year of offering a premium for hard red wheat, the company acknowledges the efforts of growers and compensates them for the extra time and added expense in its production. And they have a producer base that’s comfortable with the protein demands while acknowledging the risks of growing it.

“It’s getting a little easier to roll out this program, but it still takes some convincing,” says Wilder.

Size is another challenge. As the acres increase, farmers often opt for simplifying their production, planting bigger but simpler. Wilder notes most of the growers who are participating in the Parrish & Heimbecker program tend to be smaller, with more time to manage intensively, with different marketing streams or quality standards.

Rob McLaughlin agrees that an IP-like marketing structure may be the only way to secure sufficient quantities of higher-quality wheat. He adds that growers need a premium to develop a comfort level that eases any anxiety when it comes to selecting a variety that may cost more to produce.

“There is not enough high-protein hard red wheat produced in Ontario to service the demand — and I don’t think that can be disputed,” says McLaughlin, sales and marketing manager with C&M Seeds in Palmerston, Ont.

“Now that (10 per cent-plus) bar has become easier to reach through newer techniques (like split nitrogen applications). There’s always been that goal of having high yield and high protein at once, and most varieties never reached it. However, the newer varieties we’re working with are coming a lot closer to that goal.”

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CG Production Editor

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