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How to build protein in wheat

Read Time: 5 minutes

By the Cargill team October 14, 2020

Use foliar nutrition to get a protein bump


If you’re the kind of wheat grower who is excited to try new products, push the envelope and chase yield and protein goals, I have a new strategy that may fit your wheat acres.

We’ve worked with several farmers to research the effects of foliar-applied nutrition on wheat protein levels. The market will usually pay premiums for levels up to 14.5%. The protein market is also very volatile, so those who can produce and store high protein wheat on their farm will always be in a position to capitalize on that market.

While there are still a lot of unknowns around the impact of soil and weather, we are seeing some promising results from our on-farm Field Tests. Post harvest is the time to evaluate your wheat protein to see if there’s potential to increase it next season.

The agronomics of protein

A wheat crop’s protein level is set between heading and maturation when plants remobilize and take up nitrogen for grain filling. Nitrogen (N) and sulphur (S) are important for this process: N increases grain protein content, and S improves protein quality.

If N and S are not sufficient in the soil, the crop’s protein level can be limited. High-yielding wheat will take up a lot of nutrients early in the season to get established. By the time plants reach the grain filling stage, there may not be sufficient N and S remaining in the soil for the crop to achieve 14% or more protein.

As yield increases, protein decreases. If you’re getting bumper yields, such as 100-bushel wheat, you’re likely missing some protein potential. That’s where a foliar nutrient application may help.

yara wheat - in page

Photo courtesy of Yara Canada.


Deciding when to apply foliar nutrition

Applying foliar nutrition does not guarantee a yield bump, so we only recommend this strategy if you’re willing to experiment with new techniques. Targeting protein in wheat also takes careful planning. Here’s the process we recommend:

  • Record yield and test the protein level of the wheat that came off each field this harvest. Did you achieve the yield you were targeting for that field? What about protein?
  • Look at the protein levels you’ve achieved in each wheat field over the last several seasons. If you don’t know your protein levels, make this the year you start tracking them.
    • If the protein level from wheat in one field consistently hovers around 14.5% and 15%, foliar may not be the right fit. You’re likely applying sufficient fertilizer, and therefore, environmental conditions are determining the protein levels you can achieve in that field.
    • If the protein level in another field consistently hovers around 12% or below, foliar could do the trick. We find foliar nutrition is best for pulling up low protein levels.
  • Conduct a soil test in the low-protein fields, and review the soil test and your fertility plan with an agronomist.  Nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and sulphur (S) contribute to wheat yield and protein, but not all farmers include S in their fertilizer blend.
  • In June of the next growing season, assess the yield potential of the crop. If it looks like it will be a bumper crop, apply foliar nutrition with your fungicide application. Leave a test strip in the field so you can compare results.
    • If you did not include S in your fertilizer blend, apply a product that maintains the proper N:S ratio required at this critical stage. We recommend Thiotrac™ 300 (15-0-0 + 22.8%S).
    • If you did include S, choose a product that is primarily N. We recommend Last N™ 25-0-0.
  • Talk to your grain marketing advisor about the value of high protein wheat. 
  • At harvest, test the protein level of every truckload of wheat coming off the field. Did you achieve the higher protein level you were targeting? 

If you’d like to try targeting a higher protein level in one of your wheat fields next season, and you’re willing to experiment with foliar nutrition, talk to your Cargill agronomist. We can help you make a plan for that field.

Be sure to read our next blog on the grain marketing perspective of high protein wheat.



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