The Dynamics of Wheat: Production and Management Innovations

Headshot of Trent Klarenbach, founder of Klarenbach Research
Trent Klarenbach
June 1, 2024
Aerial panoramic view of vibrant wheat fields, representing the diversity and extensive scope of wheat farming in the U.S.
June 1, 2024
The story of wheat in the United States is one of resilience and innovation. With its roots deeply embedded in American soil, wheat production has adapted through centuries from its historic highs in the 19th century to its strategic cultivation in the modern era. This article explores the nuances of wheat production, the impact of market trends, and the progressive agricultural practices shaping the future of this staple crop.

Historical Context and Modern Revival

Wheat's Historical Significance and Resurgence

  • Illinois' Legacy: Once the leader in U.S. wheat production in the mid-1880s, Illinois saw a resurgence of interest in wheat farming when prices spiked in 2022.
  • Market Dynamics: Matt Wehmeyer notes the variability in wheat acreage based on recent price drops, yet highlights the strong yields in 2023 that have motivated farmers to continue or expand wheat cultivation.

Statistical Insights

  • Yield Trends: The 2023 season saw some regions experiencing outstanding yields, driving a renewed regional focus on wheat planting compared to the national push observed two years prior .
A farming combining a wheat field.

Where Wheat Still Reigns Supreme

In certain U.S. states, wheat continues to dominate due to ideal growing conditions and historical infrastructure.

Leading Wheat-Producing States

  • Dominant Producers: States like Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas are perennial leaders in wheat acreage.
  • Support Infrastructure: These states benefit from the backing of U.S. Wheat Associates and 17 state wheat commissions, ensuring continued research and advocacy .

The Vital Role of Wheat Class Diversity

  • Unique Properties: Each of the six distinct wheat classes are tailored for specific uses, influencing everything from milling quality to baking characteristics.
  • End-User Impact: This diversity supports a wide range of food products, from bread to noodles, making wheat a versatile and indispensable agricultural product .
Hyper-realistic depiction of a modern irrigation system spraying water over a lush, vibrant wheat field under a clear blue sky, emphasizing sustainability in farming.

Yield Gains and Agricultural Innovations

Record-Breaking Yields in 2023

  • New Benchmarks: Delaware, Illinois, and several other states reported record high winter wheat yields in 2023, with the new state average for Illinois at 87 bushels per acre, up from 79 the previous year .
  • Yield Contest Highlights: Matt Wehmeyer's entry in the National Wheat Yield Contest underscored the high-performance capabilities of modern wheat strains with a yield of 125.72 bushels per acre .

Strategies for Enhanced Yield

  • Intentional Management: Advances in wheat genetics and farming techniques over the past five years have introduced new levels of yield potential, showcasing the fruits of innovation and intentional crop management .
Hyper-realistic scene of a farmer using a tablet to analyze wheat growth in a field, highlighting the integration of digital technology in modern agriculture.

Classes of Wheat and Their Unique Characteristics

Exploring the unique characteristics and diverse applications of the six main classes of wheat sheds light on why this crop remains a cornerstone of agriculture across the United States.

Detailed Overview of Wheat Classes

Hard Red Winter Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Predominantly found in the Great Plains, Pacific Northwest, and California, and scattered across other states, making it the most widely grown wheat class.
  • Uses: Utilized for bread and all-purpose flour, it is highly versatile for a variety of bakery products including pan breads, flatbreads, hard rolls, and even some types of noodles.
  • Qualities: Contains medium to high protein levels (10 to 13%), medium hard endosperm, red bran, and mellow gluten.
  • Production: Accounts for a substantial 18.4 million metric tons annually, reflecting USDA's five-year average.

Hard Red Spring Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Thrives in the northern states such as Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington.
  • Uses: Preferred for premium "designer" wheat products like hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels, and pizza dough; also serves as an excellent flour improver.
  • Qualities: High protein content (12 to 15%), hard endosperm, red bran, strong gluten, and high water absorption capacity.
  • Production: Produces approximately 12.5 million metric tons.

Soft Red Winter Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Cultivated mainly in the eastern third of the U.S., predominantly east of the Mississippi River.
  • Uses: Ideal for cakes, cookies, crackers, and other confectionery products, valued by millers and bakers for its blending properties.
  • Qualities: Features low protein levels (8.5 to 10.5%), soft endosperm, red bran, and weak gluten.
  • Production: Yields around 9.0 million metric tons.

Soft White Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Grows in the Pacific Northwest and some areas of Michigan.
  • Uses: Produces a whiter and brighter product, perfect for cakes, pastries, Asian-style noodles, and Middle Eastern flatbreads.
  • Qualities: Characterized by low protein (8.5 to 10.5%), low moisture content, and weak gluten.
  • Production: Annually yields about 6.3 million metric tons.

Hard White Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Found in the Central Plains states such as Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, as well as California, Idaho, and Montana.
  • Uses: Used in making Asian noodles, tortillas, flatbreads, and high extraction applications like white, whole wheat pan breads.
  • Qualities: Contains medium to high protein (10 to 14%), hard endosperm, and white bran.
  • Production: Has a smaller footprint with 0.7 million metric tons produced annually.

Durum Wheat:

  • Growing Region: Primarily grown in Montana and North Dakota, with some acreage in Arizona, California, and South Dakota.
  • Uses: The go-to wheat for pasta and couscous, as well as some Mediterranean breads, known for its high protein content and suitability for semolina and durum flour.
  • Qualities: High protein content (12 to 15%), yellow endosperm, and white bran.
  • Production: Reaches about 1.6 million metric tons each year.

The Integral Role of Wheat in Sustainable Agriculture

Wheat continues to play a pivotal role in sustainable agriculture and global food security due to its adaptability and the diversity of its classes. Each class brings unique qualities that cater to different culinary needs and agricultural conditions, enhancing its value chain from farm to table. With ongoing advancements in genetic research and farming practices, wheat's potential is being unlocked at an unprecedented scale, promising exciting opportunities for future agricultural development and food production.