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Managing for protein

Weather is a factor in getting the right protein in malt barley and wheat, but there are some management  techniques that improve your odds.

December 18, 2007  By Rosalie I. Tennison

22It is like preaching to the converted to tell growers that getting the right level of protein in a malt barley or wheat crop can make a significant difference to their bottom line. However, fine-tuning fertility management can be a significant factor in attaining the sought after protein levels.

Soil testing is a key way to guide fertility programs to target protein levels.

“Of course farmers know the importance of grain protein because it can affect them economically,” says Tom Jensen, an agronomist with Agricore United based in Calgary, Alberta. “Certainly, it is a challenge to get the crop you want, but there is some management that can be undertaken which will help get the protein level you want if the weather conditions are right.” In hard red spring wheat when growers fertilize to attain higher protein and the season offers above average moisture, the crop will yield higher but the starch level in the kernels will be higher and the protein level will drop. If the season ends up drier, the yield will be lower but the protein will be higher. In malting barley, when the goal is to obtain lower protein, growers try not to over-fertilize to get that all-important malt rating.

“The amount of nitrogen that is added will have an affect on the protein levels,” continues Jensen. “But growers are always at the mercy of the weather.” However, he says there are some strategies that work well to spread the risk and, on average, can get growers the protein they desire.

Jensen stresses that growers who want to achieve a specific protein level in either barley or wheat should always soil test. “If you soil test, you get an idea of the nitrogen levels in a field and then apply enough nitrogen to achieve the desired protein levels given average growing conditions,” he says. “If an area gets more moisture than anticipated, nitrogen can be added as a top dress application, which could help boost the protein in a wheat crop.

This is more effective early in the season, for example, before the end of June. A grower could top dress 20 to 30 pounds of granular or liquid nitrogen at the four-to-five leaf stage and increase the chances of obtaining a boost in the protein.” He adds that at the flag leaf stage, a foliar application of 10 to 15 pounds of nitrogen may result in a
modest protein boost but results are not consistent. He admits this is not an exact science and success still depends on the weather for the rest of the season, but it offers a better opportunity to get the desired protein levels.

23“There is no question this is a complex management challenge,” says Jensen. “Protein is the result of fertilizer plus the natural soil nitrogen contributions from mineralized organic matter and residual nitrogen remaining in the soil from the previous crop.” He says putting a pulse crop into the rotation could help boost the protein in a following wheat crop, but the economics of doing this have to make sense, depending on pulse prices.

Wheat protein premiums are dependent on weather factors, but fertility programs play an important role.

One grower who has his management program set to achieve the best levels of protein down to a science is Spencer Hilton of Strathmore, Alberta. “We soil test for both wheat and barley crops because it helps us plan our nutrition program to maximize our opportunities,” he explains. “We know our land as well as anyone, so we do our own soil testing to get a good average nutrition level for the field. We mark the points where we test using GPS and then we test in exactly the same places every year. It’s important to choose the best spots on your field to take the tests and then we sample at zero to six inches, six to 12 inches and 12 to 24 inches, which gives us a good stratification of what is in the field. I think fertility and soil testing are number one and number two on the list to optimize protein successfully.”

Hilton says in his wheat crop, he chooses a good variety that has yield, disease resistance and the potential for protein and then aims for the highest fertility possible to give the crop the opportunity to optimize a high protein level. In his barley crop, he skimps slightly on his nitrogen application to help reduce his protein potential.

He says this management strategy maximizes his cost benefits.

Crop consultants can help growers understand fertility if optimum protein is a goal. Jensen says his company uses AgroMax, a fertilizer recommendation program, to help customers make decisions that will help achieve the protein levels they want. “There is definitely a correlation between using soil test data and getting the desired protein results,” Jensen says. “In areas where soil testing is not a common management tool, we see average results on protein. But in areas where soil testing is commonly used, we see better protein results.”

Hilton says he would not plant his crop without considering his soil test data and using it to plan his options. He says he has about five years of GPS assisted multi-layer soil test data for each field on his farm and it is making a difference in his decision-making, particularly when he is aiming for protein premiums. He adds, if a grower does not know what is in his field, he cannot make the most of his opportunities. Another management decision he makes is to plant his barley as early as possible so the plant can complete much of its life cycle in the cooler part of the year, which can have an effect on reducing protein levels.

Jensen reminds growers that the prairies have been farmed for more than 100 years, making replacement of nutrition important in order to sustain production levels and achieve the desired protein in wheat or barley. It is no longer enough to plant a crop, hope for good weather and harvest the result in the fall. To get premium prices for the desirable protein levels in malt barley and wheat, growers need to pay close attention to managing their fertility which, in turn, will improve their odds, despite the weather.


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