The future of minor wheat classes

Recent changes in marketing and grading regulations should mean more acres, but non-CWRS wheats are still struggling to find their place

The future of minor wheat classes

It’s a chicken-and-egg standoff. Prairie farmers are enthusiastic about the higher yields from minor classes like Prairie spring, extra strong and winter wheat, but they want an assured market. Marketers say they can sell it — if farmers grow a consistent supply. Then there’s the question or where to spend scarce research dollars.

“Our association wants to get answers to the question of where minor classes of wheat are headed,” says Brent Vankoughnet, executive director of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association. “First, we want to make sure there is market development investment. How do we continue to make the connection with our customers?”

Vankoughnet says there are also the agronomic considerations.

“Does (a minor wheat class) earn a place in my rotation? Is it competitive? Sure, yield times price equals profit, but there’s more than that to consider. Are there long-term consequences like excess straw or access to your field as in the case of getting a canola crop off to plant your winter wheat?”

Vankoughnet says wheat acres in Manitoba have been relatively stable over the years, with 90 to 95 per cent falling in the CWRS class and only “ebbs and flows” of the minor classes going in the ground.

“With so much of our wheat in the CWRS class, we don’t want to drop a stitch there in terms of agronomy and market development,” says Vankoughnet. “But we want to encourage options for farmers.”

Area steady or declining

Ethanol plant demand helped increase soft white spring area to 1.2 million acres in 2013, but it dropped to under 800,000 acres in 2014.

Canada Prairie Spring (CPS) acreage has kept near the million-acre mark, but Canada Western Extra Strong wheat area has dropped to under 100,000 acres Prairie-wide in 2014. Most of this wheat is now grown under contract for specific domestic and European markets.

After peaking at 1.245 million acres in 2012, winter wheat area plummeted to just over 600,000 acres last fall. G3 (formerly CWB) weather and crop analyst Bruce Burnett attributes the drop to disease and to later harvests in recent years, which affects farmers’ ability to get winter wheat in the ground. However, Burnett says yield and quality of the 2015 harvest look good and an earlier harvest this year means the crop is likely to rebound.

Harvey Brooks, general manager of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, agreed and says winter wheat is “on the cusp of moving forward.” He also sees potential for CPS.

“There’s lots of excitement surrounding CPS Red wheat. If we can demonstrate end-use demand and if farmers can get a good price, good things will happen.”

Todd Hyra of SeCan says there are new CPS varieties that have improved stature and better lodging resistance. But new varieties need to be further developed by the marketing chain in order to create the critical mass for long-term sales success.

Segregation costs

Brooks says the transition from a single desk to multiple sellers has prompted a re-examination of markets and customers’ desires.

“Wheat needs to be competitive. There must be value to the end-user as well as value to the farmer. There must be high enough volumes to satisfy collection and transportation profitability. Velocity is everything in transportation. Grains are costly to segregate.”

Andy Klippenstein of G3 says the Canadian marketing and collection system is a critical factor in the success of minor wheat classes, since terminals may be reluctant to take ownership of a smaller amount of grain that needs to be segregated and may not fill an entire silo.

“All grain companies want to turn their capacity as often as possible and with the smaller classes, they may be tying up a large silo that is partially filled for quite some time until they actually get the opportunity to ship the product to the end-user,” says Klippenstein.

Ready markets

“CPS wheat and winter wheat, from a baking perspective, have seen a significant improvement in varieties over a number of years, delivering superior milling and baking attributes,” says Yvonne Supeene, head of baking technology for the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi). “CPS has good water absorption, fermentation tolerance and volume. It makes excellent pan and hearth breads.”

Supeene says Canada’s winter wheats are perfect for baking baguettes because they contribute the “burst” in the loaf when it is baked to a golden crust and torn in two.

Esey Assefaw, Cigi’s head of Asian products and extrusion technology, says these wheats have the unique medium-protein qualities that buyers in these markets are looking for to produce Asian noodles and steam bread. CPS Red, in particular, delivers the correct elasticity needed in many types of noodles. For Japanese udon or ichiban noodles, CPS Red provides elasticity that allows the manufacturer to reduce the need for starch, which improves the profit margin for the manufacturer.

Despite having red bran, red winter wheat separates cleanly during milling and produces a white flour, which is prized in the production of Asian bread and steam buns.

Assefaw says the challenge is not quality, but consistent supply. “If we get production, we have sales. If we have sales, we get production. Somebody has to support red winter wheat or it’s all going to go to the U.S. for other purposes.”

Cigi offers programs and courses designed to attract buyers of Canadian grains and show them how the various Canadian wheat classes can improve the quality and profit margin of their products. This summer, Cigi hosted or attended events reaching out to about two dozen buyers from eight Latin American and Caribbean countries to describe the characteristics of CPS Red and other Canadian wheat.

Alberta Wheat Commission chairman Kent Erickson agrees that adequate production is needed to deliver consistent quality and show buyers that Canada is committed to supply.

“Farmers benefit from higher-yielding varieties of CPS and winter wheat, and they are trying to get more consistent demand from handlers for their production,” Erickson says. While some growers’ agreements with grain companies do exist, “identity-preserved contracts haven’t reached into winter wheat yet.”

SeCan CEO Jeff Reid says recent regulatory changes are allowing for new and exciting varieties of minor classes. “The grain commission is sorting out the wheat classes. Industry is unified about making sure CWRS is tightened up and doing the job that customers want. CPS Red is a great alternative milling wheat and the yield has upside potential.”

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