Insight: Feast of protein in U.S. spring wheat harvest

Fri Sep 9, 2011 10:22am EDT
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By Michael Hirtzer

CHICAGO (Reuters) - North Dakota wheat farmer Terry Weckerly applied extra fertilizer to his wheat this summer to coax more protein out of the crop. Flour mills and grain elevators were paying near-record premiums for high-protein wheat and he wanted a slice of it.

The fertilizer worked too well. Weckerly and other spring wheat farmers are harvesting a crop with protein content of more than 15 percent. The protein-richest crop in five years has led to those high premiums evaporating.

Scorching weather in July stressed the crop, which usually leads to lower yields even as the wheat plants devote more energy to protein production.

However, premiums for higher protein wheat -- which this March had soared to more than $6 per bushel above Minneapolis Grain Exchange spring wheat futures -- the highest since 2008 -- are now gone due to an abundance of it, replaced by a dynamic some grain industry insiders have not seen in a decade: a push for low-protein spring wheat.

"We're going from famine to feast," said a manager at a Canadian grain elevator, who like several of the dozen grain merchants interviewed for this article was not authorized to speak on the record.

North Dakota is the top producer of hard red spring wheat, which is one of the most valuable wheat varieties, prized for its high protein and gluten content.

Flour produced with high-quality spring wheat better absorbs water, making a dough that in turn results in airier, more stable loaves of bread, bagels, rolls or pizza crusts.

The total U.S. spring wheat crop, excluding the durum used to make pasta, was forecast by the U.S. Agriculture Department at 522 million bushels, down 15 percent from last year, with both the crop and yield estimated to be lowest in four years.   Continued...

<p>A ladybug crawls down a stalk of wheat ready for harvest on the Canadian prairies near Vulcan, Alberta, September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Todd Korol</p>