Harvest time: Montana wheat harvest late but protein rich
Ashley Green and daughter Sommer rounded the corner in their John Deere combine and rolled to the semi awaiting their load. The mother swung the boom of the unloader over the truck trailer and let the grain spill.
The boys were right behind. Dallas Green, son Rory, and nephew Kyler Venable moved as fast as threshing speed would allow. It was a good day to be custom cutting winter wheat in Rosebud County. There were combines trundling through grain in just about every field east of Pompeys Pillar. The Greens, from Whitewater, were seeing some better-than-average wheat.
“The protein is about 14 percent and we’re averaging about 50 bushels an acre, which is good for this area,” Dallas Green said.
Wheat farmers pump a year’s worth of sweat into the slot machine hoping for a late summer payout. This year, decent rain across most of the state and light hail damage has made the harvest less of a gamble.
“So far, it’s looking very good,” said Cassidy Marn, Montana Wheat and Barley Committee marketing director. “We’ve had reports from the state grain lab, early reports, very early, about 15 percent in with samples over 13 percent protein and test weights over 63 pounds per bushel.”
Protein is what makes Montana wheat valuable to foreign buyers looking to blend it with ordinary wheat to create flour good for making pasta. Montana farmers normally receive a premium payment for high protein levels, which aren’t usually found in wheat from other parts of the country. Ordinary winter wheat has a protein level of no more than 10 percent. A 13 percent protein level is on the higher end.
Test weights are a good indicator of flour extraction for wheat, with 60 pounds per bushel being the highest grade. Early test weights suggest Montana has a high-quality wheat crop, which it might need to clear the $1 billion value mark for the sixth time in seven years.
There is a lot of wheat on the global market, which is driving prices down. There’s also a lot of protein in U.S. wheat because in regions like the Southern Plains, drought stress drove up wheat protein levels. That means high-protein Montana wheat has unwanted competition and that protein premiums might be lower or nonexistent. It’s the second year in a row that states not known for high-protein grain are crowding Montana’s niche market.
Gulf State wheat protein levels in some cases are above 12.5, Marn said, which isn’t good news for Montana payouts. Roughly 85 percent of the Texas crop has protein levels above 12.5 percent.
There is still a lot of Montana wheat yet to be harvested. Through last week, roughly 65 percent of Montana winter wheat was cut, but just 6 percent of the state’s spring wheat has been harvested, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service. Cool, wet spring weather delayed winter and spring harvests by several weeks.
There were exceptions, like farmer Phil Steinberger, who cut his grain July 13, weeks ahead of his Forsyth neighbors, though his protein levels were closer to 9 percent.
In the extreme northeast corner of Montana, farmer Gordon Stoner said spring wheat and durum crops in his area were still too green to cut and may not be ready until September. Rain in nearby Plentywood is 4.5 inches above average for the year and the summer temperatures have been mild.
“Durum and spring wheat, there hasn’t been any harvested, but the crops look very good,” Stoner said as he harvested peas Wednesday.
Not everyone benefited from a wet 2014 growing season. Dallas Green said it was great to be cutting such abundant wheat near Forsyth after suffering drought conditions in Whitewater, where drought fissures were opening in the parched ground.
“You could lose a 32-inch crescent down those cracks,” Green said.