Growers preparing to harvest this year's winter wheat crop in Nebraska likely found few problems with diseases like stripe rust or fusarium head blight that have plagued wheat fields in the last three years. Although this year's crop got off to a slow start with the prolonged winter conditions lasting well into April, those same cold temperatures, for the most part, kept diseases at bay. However, Nebraska wheat is facing an ongoing challenge: fewer and fewer acres.
Winter wheat acres seeded in the fall are estimated at a record-low 1.07 million — a 4% drop from last year's then record low of 1.12 million planted acres, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service numbers.
"The concern I have is the drop in wheat acreage,” says Stephen Wegulo, Nebraska Extension plant pathologist. “The drop has been significant in the last several years. I'm seeing a lot less wheat in the eastern part of the state than I saw five to six years ago."
Disease plays a role
And Wegulo notes wheat diseases are a likely factor. When wheat prices are low, it's especially challenging to make multiple fungicide applications work economically.
"In 2007, we had a lot of fusarium head blight in the eastern part of the state. The same happened in 2008 and 2015," he says. "Fusarium head blight is a disease favored by wet conditions. When you have it at an epidemic level, it means the season was wet, which means other diseases will occur. In a year where we have fusarium head blight, some growers are forced to apply three times, and that's just not feasible. In those two years, I talked to growers that told me they weren't going to grow wheat anymore."
Fusarium head blight's impact varies depending on the environmental conditions and how widespread the disease is within the field. However, under moderate infections, Wegulo notes it can reduce yields anywhere from 15% to 30%. However, in severe years — like 2007, 2008 and 2015 — up to 100% yield losses could be expected if the levels of fusarium-damaged kernels and a vomitoxin known as DON, produced by the fusarium head blight fungus, are so high that the grain is rejected at the elevator. Normally, vomitoxin brings a penalty at the elevator if it measures above 2 parts per million.
But it isn't just fusarium head blight. Diseases like stripe rust and wheat streak mosaic have plagued fields in the east and west in the last several years. Stripe rust, which has increased in severity, has brought yield reductions of up to 50% in some fields. Meanwhile, wheat streak mosaic, a result of wheat curl mites surviving on a green bridge of volunteer wheat, has resulted in a total loss for some fields.
So, it may not make sense financially to make multiple fungicide applications in a year, but growers who applied fungicide once to protect the flag leaf in previous years saw a financial benefit.
"If environmental conditions are favorable, we always encourage growers to apply to protect the flag leaf. If it's just moderate stripe rust pressure like in 2016, those who sprayed just for stripe rust benefited," Wegulo says. "They saved their crop, but it has to be that one application. If the disease pressure or number of diseases are such that you can get by with one application at flag leaf, it's definitely worth it."
For more information on the potential return on fungicide applications based on yields, wheat prices, and fungicide costs, see accompanying table from the NebGuide, Foliar Diseases of Winter Wheat: Management with Fungicides, G1979.
Freight, protein challenges
But it isn't just diseases that have contributed. Along with lower prices, transportation has been a problem for growers in Nebraska. Half of the wheat produced in Nebraska is exported, and nearly all of it leaves Nebraska by rail.
Caroline Brauer, ag promotion coordinator with the Nebraska Wheat Board, notes, "If I wanted to take a shuttle train of wheat from the southern Panhandle — from Sidney, Neb. to the Gulf — the same train, same car, same track … I would pay $1,900 per car more to move wheat than I will corn. Multiply that across a 110-car shuttle train and you're talking real dollars," citing Burlington Northern rates. "Back in 2008, you had $6.50 to $7 wheat. We're looking at $4.50 wheat right now. The cost per cart to move wheat down to the Gulf was $3,800. Today, we're just under $5,400. So, the wheat price is down, but freight rates are up."
Joe Christopher, merchandiser at Crossroads Cooperative in Sidney, notes that's been a challenge over the last 10 years for wheat in Nebraska — and it's largely due to a lack of competition among the railroads.
"It costs 52 cents more per bushel to ship wheat to the Gulf of Mexico than to ship corn," Christopher says. "The producer basically pays the increases, and the freight rate is absorbed in the price he gets. He gets 50 cents less for his wheat than he'd get for corn, so the acreage changes."
Meanwhile, protein levels in wheat have trended lower over the last five years.
"We used to have around 11.5% to 11.7% protein for the entire harvest average. Over the last two years, we averaged 10.2%," Christopher says of wheat grown in the southern Panhandle. "This area has traditionally been a domestic market. When you're low in protein, the flour mills don't want it anymore, and you're shipping into an export market. That affects price."
All these factors contribute to lower returns, and play a role in the decision to not plant wheat.
"It's a perfect storm of multiple things coming together to make farmers ask: Is it worth it to plant wheat, or isn't it?" Brauer says. "In the last few years, unfortunately, we've seen acres trend downward. That boils down to the fact it costs more to grow wheat than farmers can sell it for."
"It is a challenge, but our farmers still are growing some of the best grain in the world," she adds. "I think with some serious conversations between all of the players within the production and marketing chain, we can find a way to ensure that everybody is profitable."