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The great western winter wheat rescue is on

Researchers and marketers are combining their efforts to revitalize a crop stuck in a multi-year decline

It can yield up to 40 per cent higher than spring wheat. It’s competitive with weeds. It helps prevent soil erosion. It spreads out the farm workload, with seeding and harvest windows different from spring crops. It’s the world’s most common type of wheat traded. And it’s duck-friendly. So what’s not to like?

You’d think not much, but for all its advantages, winter wheat is a crop in decline on the Prairies. Statistics Canada reported 915,000 acres in 2014, but it’s dropped each year since and only 410,000 acres were reported last year — only a third of the record 1.3 million acres in 2012.

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Gary Stanford, a grain producer from Magrath, Alta., and vice-chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC), says weather is partly to blame.

Generally, the best practice is to plant winter wheat from late August to mid-September, giving the crop a chance to become well-established so it will reliably overwinter. Seed much later than that and there’s real risk that the crop will not overwinter well, says Stanford.

“Last year when people went in to seed their winter wheat, it had been so hot and dry through June, July and August that all the moisture in the ground was depleted right across the southern half of Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Early October 2017 brought rain to areas of southern Alberta, urging many dedicated winter wheat growers to plant at that time. However, Stanford says these acres are likely not reflected in the StatsCan report. “By seeding winter wheat that late in the year you can’t insure it for crop insurance so some of that might not be in the StatsCan report.”

Quality differences drive lower price point

But weather isn’t the only factor. In many ways, winter wheat lives in the shadow of Canadian spring wheat. Although neither is “better” than the other, they usually serve different end-uses, with spring wheat tending to occupy a more lucrative space at the top end of the value chain. And that ultimately affects everything from winter wheat’s price point to its role in the bakery.

“Spring and winter wheat are different by design,” says Stanford. “Canadian spring wheat varieties — which produce high protein and strong gluten — are designed to be top-quality milling wheats and in that capacity are among the best spring wheats in the world. They are frequently found in the same high-rising loaves of bread one would find at their local grocery store.”

Winter wheat contains lower protein and lower-strength gluten, causing it to be earmarked for flatter, denser breads as well as pizza dough. “While both can be used in baking, the spring wheats are designed to produce superior results,” says Stanford.

This lower protein content tends to be the elephant in the room when it comes to what producers can expect to receive upon delivery to the elevator. Although discounts vary throughout the year, Canadian winter wheat generally contains two or three lower protein percentage points than springs.

Canadian prices may also suffer from the relatively small and dispersed production across the Prairies, making it difficult for exporters to offer consistent supplies, especially when competing against the U.S., where it’s the main crop and available in large quantities year-round.

Improved varieties on the way

The good news is there are new varieties in the pipeline that have been bred with higher resistance to drought as well as common crop pests. Rob Graf, a leading plant breeder at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, is among those working to improve both the agronomic and milling qualities of Canadian winter wheat.

The Alberta Wheat Commission has supported Graf’s work, along with other projects aimed at improving winter wheat’s performance, says Stanford. “In just over five years, AWC has invested more than half a million dollars in winter wheat-specific research to strengthen the class overall.”

It’s hoped this will build on work by AWC and Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) efforts to develop the market for winter wheat in overseas markets.

AAFC Icefield, which was developed in Graf’s program, was recently registered as the first hard white winter wheat variety in Western Canada. Cigi has demonstrated its potential for producing Asian noodles with improved end-use product quality.

Graf says one of the best-kept secrets about Canadian Western Red Winter (CWRW) wheat is its milling quality. “It’s actually our best milling wheat in Western Canada. Studies by Cigi have shown that winter wheat in our CWRW class has superior milling characteristics compared to U.S. hard red winter wheat as measured by flour yield, flour ash and flour colour.”

But he says protein content and water absorption are concerns.

“Compared to our red spring wheat the protein concentration has been lower — on average in the two to two-and-a-half per cent range. Some of the older varieties were also lower in gluten strength; we’ve corrected that with recent varieties.”

The main challenge in breeding higher-protein winter wheat is the constant push-pull between yield and protein content.

Encouraging news on protein

“As you increase protein, yield tends to come down, so the challenge is to maintain progress in yield while increasing protein at the same time,” Graf says.

“We don’t want to go backwards in yield; we want to maintain and increase our yields, but at the same time increase protein concentration a per cent to a per cent-and-a-half.”

Another ongoing issue with winter wheat is its relatively low water absorption, a disadvantage for bakers. “The amount of water the flour will absorb is quite a bit lower than some of our spring bread wheat classes,” says Graf.

“What it means is that for a given amount of flour made with our red winter class, you get less dough. Typically our western red spring wheat will run in that 65 to 68 per cent absorption range while our winter wheat runs from 57 to 60. That’s a substantial difference.

“This is something I’ve been working very hard on correcting. Within the next few years it certainly looks like we’ll have some nice progress in absorption among some of the lines going towards registration.”

Graf says correcting these limitations should compel buyers to reconsider winter wheat.

“My hope is that customers will look at the red winter wheat quality profile and recognize that it will fit their needs precisely,” Graf says. “That would hopefully be reflected in price, and if the price is good, acreage will hopefully follow as well.”


Wildlife- and market-friendly

Another benefit of winter wheat is as a habitat for nesting birds (see below). Since there are no spring tillage operations, nesting birds are not disturbed and their young ones have matured before combines arrive in August or September. Ducks Unlimited Canada says research shows that ducks that choose to nest in winter wheat are 24 times more productive than those who choose to nest in spring-sown cereals.

“With many consumers becoming increasingly mindful of sustainability, these benefits could help differentiate and build value around products made using winter wheat,” says Daniel Ramage, director of market development with Cereals Canada.

photo: Supplied

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