A Trip East, Into Wheat Country

On the last day of February, I headed for the Eastern Plains of Colorado out to Kit Carson County, where the population density is 3.7 people per square mile, the air that you breathe is light and fresh, and the sun shines far more than it does not. My destination was Burlington, the county seat, which is only 13 miles from Kansas, takes up a whole two square miles, and is where about half of the county’s 8,000 people live. Sixteen percent of Kit Carson County’s population is over age 65, and 19 percent is Hispanic. The average annual rainfall is 16 inches per year.

I was in the heart of wheat country and if I owned a pair of cowboy boots, I’d have worn them.

The county extension service had a day of remarkable speakers lined up who were experts on wheat, starting with my own son’s Colorado State University adviser, Dr. Scott Haley. (Scott is on the left in the photo below.)

Although Colorado has a growing legacy of notable wheat breeders, Dr. Haley and his large research team is on course to go down in history as one of the best. Currently, in the state of Colorado, 60 percent of the 80 percent of acres being grown that are identified as a specific wheat variety, are varieties developed by Dr. Haley.

While most flours that you buy are made up of wheat variety blends, Conagra recently released Ultragrain HP flour available in bulk to bakers that is made exclusively with a Haley hard white winter wheat variety called Snowmass. It took Haley and his team ten years to develop Snowmass, a project begun in 1999.

According to bakingbusiness.com

ConAgra Mills has introduced Ultragrain High Performance (HP), a new flour ConAgra said offers “unprecedented whole wheat baking advantages like vital wheat gluten reduction, higher absorption and improved mixing performance resulting in lower finished goods costs for bakeries.” … “Our new Ultragrain HP flour has phenomenal gluten strength and is unmatched by any whole wheat flour in the market regardless of the protein level of the comparison flour. … ConAgra said Ultragrain HP flour is made from Snowmass, a wheat variety grown in Colorado exclusively by farmers who participate in the Ultragrain Premium Program.

Today’s wheat researchers are equally bent upon increasing yields and improving baking quality at the same time. (My CSU student son’s part-time job is baking bread in CSU’s baking quality research lab, where they bake and do testing on over 700 loaves per year.)

Conagra gave us Ultragrain blend flour as we left the conference that day, and I’ve really enjoyed baking bread with this flour. It is simply easier to mix and prepare, something I didn’t know was possible, but then I’m not a professional baker. The texture of the finished loaves looks more professional than any I’ve previously baked and I’m not trying to do an advertisement for anyone involved when I say that. I’m simply marveling at the potential still being attained in agricultural research and seed breeding by people like Haley who are out there in the real world just doing their daily best while most of us consumers take it all for granted.

One of Dr. Haley’s many interesting slides describing the history of wheat breeding in Colorado was this next graph showing the impressive wheat yield gains since 1976.

Wheat breeders are constantly challenged with pests and diseases that they need to outsmart and wheat country takes place in marginal rainfall areas, too. Another CSU professor, Agronomist Neil Hanson, spoke about the fact that wheat yield improvements mean nothing without water. He showed equally impressive yield to water graphs and spoke of the importance of residue and organic matter in the soil which has improved yields because of enhanced water absorption for farmers who’ve adopted no-till practices.

The day included presentations from Nebraska and Kansas wheat breeders, too, as well as the French cooperative, Limagrain.

Several companies including Monsanto are working on transgenic wheat but no wheat varieties containing transgenic trait have been released to growers, yet, anywhere in the world.

Dr. Haley is extremely enthused about the rapid advancement of genetic breeding technology which he believes will help wheat yield improvements play catch-up to that of the historic gains of corn and soy in the next couple decades. The cost of the research has gone down remarkably, enabling more rapid progress of the genetic improvements to occur. Because of today’s genomic selection through doubled haploid techniques, researchers have gone from selecting parent plants in six years, down to one year!

The term “gluten-free” never came up on this day in this particular region of the world. Nor did the name “Dr. William Davis,” a cardiologist who claims that modern short wheat varieties contain a new protein called gliadin that stimulates our appetites and does all kinds of bad things to our bodies. This faddish food trend means that flour consumption has decreased in the past decade in the U.S. But, in reality, wheat and rice continue to be the two main grains that nourish human populations around the world today.

In my opinion, we need fewer donuts but more whole grains in our American diets.

As I ventured home on I-70 to return to the place where there are too many cars, I received an unexpected bonus to round out the day. Cresting a high point just West of Burlington, I saw one of the top sunset vistas of my entire life. All of the surrounding land was snow covered and the clouds provided a perfectly mirrored image like drifts of snow spread across the Western sky. The sun’s rays were everywhere. I imagined that the Arctic must look just like this in low light. In those several minutes, I experienced the power of the barren landscape. Everything I saw was in shades of light blue and white and I could see forever.

I never stopped to take a picture because I knew that it would be a futile attempt to capture the grand experience of a fleeting moment, not a photograph. Plus, once you’re on I-70 headed back towards Boulder, you don’t stop for anything.

NOTE: Follow-up post “Wheat Breeding Sped Up Using Doubled Haploids

3 thoughts on “A Trip East, Into Wheat Country

  1. Jason

    What interesting timing. I am at the farm late tonight because we are planting spring wheat before it rains tomorrow. Just loaded a seeder and stepped into the office to read this…

    The big worry around here is stripe rust, which is a problem when the springs are wet. Not sure that is as much of a problem where it only rains about 16 inches a year. We average 40 inches. This makes it more difficult to get high protein levels, but yields are very high. 100-150 bu/acre not uncommon.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Jason, wheat fits your climate because your summers are so dry, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong. It is interesting how versatile the crop is because of all of the varieties out there. No other crop can be scattered across the seasons like wheat. Diseases vary, too, by location and variety. Here, they work on resistance to the Russian wheat aphid, which appeared in 1987 and rust is another problem.

      Does Oregon State produce and research a lot of new wheat varieties, too, or where are you sourcing yours from? Do you save your own seed?


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