We have all heard or uttered the words, “The only thing certain is change!” Nothing is truer than when discussing the new wheat crop each year. One year, it is high price. The next year, it is poor quality. Every once in a while, the transition into new crop becomes a nonevent. In 2010, there wasn’t much to write about. But now it is 2011, and times are interesting again.
I just attended the June meeting of the US Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspection Advisory Committee held in Kansas City, MO. It was fascinating to hear attendees talk about the varying stages of rainfall from drought to flooding. Dave from south Texas begged for water, and Tammy from North Dakota offered to share the state’s rainfall with anyone and everyone. When I asked Tom why he was so tan (not typical of someone working in the grain business), he said he has been spending a lot of time sand-bagging — he lives in Iowa.
Given the progression of drought in the South Central US, you can see the advance of rain across the central part of the US as you move north. I believe it is safe to say that the wheat crop will be similar to the rainfall: varied across the hard red winter region. Lower yields and higher proteins are evident in Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. As of this writing, we are on Day No. 13 of harvest, and Kansas is about 35% complete. So, there is a lot of wheat left to be harvested, and the changes will continue as you move north into areas with more rain or, worse, flooding.
As you guessed, we are in for some changes as we move into transition for the 2011 wheat harvest. This year, from a protein quality standpoint, the changes appear to be good. Early indications are that protein contents are ranging from 13.0 to 13.5% protein. Given the approximate drop of 1.0 to 1.2 percentage points in protein that occur during the milling process, you are looking at protein levels of 11.8 to 12.3% for flour with normal to stronger gluten strength.
Fortunately, drought conditions haven’t affected the yield as much as expected. Some regions are touting yields of 30 to 50 bu per acre. (My niece and her husband texted to tell me their wheat in Yates Center, KS, yielded 55 and 58 bu per acre for the two varieties they planted. They are doing the happy dance in southeast Kansas.) But there are still some areas with bu-per-acre yields in the single-digit range. Bless the farmers who choose to grow wheat, since many are changing to produce higher per-acre yielding crops like corn and soybeans.
Bake absorptions for 2011 flour are coming in between 60 and 64%. That is good news, considering the number of bakers who state their favorite ingredient is water. The mix times range from 9 to 12 minutes. The stability looks good at this point, and that is before the sweat.
Just in case there are bakers who don’t know about sweat, let me try to give you an example of wheat crop sweat and what it means to you. After harvest, the crop is typically stored in large grain bins, the ones you see near the river or railroad tracks. Wheat is typically described as “hot” once it is pumped into the bins for storage. Over time, outside temperatures and wheat temperatures come to equilibrium in storage, and the term “sweat” describes the process of the wheat temperature equilibrating with its surroundings. This process typically happens during September and October as the weather temperatures cool down. Wheat sweat is important to bakers because during this timeframe, the wheat quality (and flour quality) tends to become more consistent, and you typically gain a bit more absorption.
As a baker, you prefer to move into new crop flour gradually. A typical plan is to go 75% old crop and 25% new crop, then 50:50, next 25% old crop and 75% new crop and, finally, move into 100% new crop flour. The timeframe of this transition is typically driven by the amount of crop carryover from the previous year as well as the quality of the carryover wheat. (Sometimes, you just want to get out of the mess you are in during a poor crop year. Fortunately, those years are few and far between.) The reason for the slow changeover is so bakery personnel can ensure that the mix and absorption changes needed for the new flour mix are monitored to maximize the quality and quantity of your new dough mixture and resulting bread quality.
Once the transition process is complete, make sure you know the fermentation tolerance if you are using the sponge-and-dough process. Typically, bakers set 3- to 4-hour sponge times. However, there have been years when 2.0 to 2.5 hours of sponge time was all the flour could handle and still make a quality loaf of bread. Ensuring you have optimized mix and absorption is also important in new crop transition. Have your lab team run a mix and absorption series, where they take both parameters to the extreme (to the point of totally over-mixed and over-absorbed). This will help you zero in on the correct numbers. This approach will also help to make sure you aren’t leaving money on the table by not adding enough absorption to your dough.
Given 2011’s protein content and reports of good stability and bake scores, you may have some other opportunities to review your formula and save money. Do the formulations contain gluten, dough strengtheners, dough conditions or any other ingredients to help you with processing and finished product quality? Do not assume that these ingredients are needed the same way they were last year. Do your homework to determine if they really make a difference and are needed. If you really want to take a proactive approach, give the technical service person from your favorite ingredient company a call. Ingredient companies are continually investing in new technology and may have a better, and possibly more economical, way to solve issues you may have. While you may not end up with a lower bowl cost for your product compared with the past year — thanks to the recent run-up in flour prices — there may be savings opportunities with lower ingredient levels or improved ingredient choices.
Because the price of soft red winter (SRW) wheat is significantly discounted compared with hard red winter (HRW) wheat, you want to make sure you are getting a hard wheat flour blend and not a hard/soft wheat blend. Economically, it makes sense — and cents — for grain buyers and blenders to take a hard look at a HRW/SRW blend.
Grain-grading standards allow 5% wheat of other classes. An experienced grain buyer told me that many people cannot tell the difference in a wheat sample until you reach 10% wheat of other classes, so keep an eye on things at the mixer and product quality sides. If mix, absorption and/or processing start to falter, pick up the phone and have a discussion with your flour supplier. Most millers are honest people, but sometimes things happen they aren’t aware of until a customer calls. Keep the lines of communication open.
One very honest miller described the 2011 crop transition as “seamless, other than pockets of ‘Oh, shoot, how did this happen?’” (Not an exact quote, but the printable version.) Once again, just when you think all you need to worry about is price, there may be surprises along the way. But for the most part, the surprises this year should be on the positive side when it comes to wheat quality. With some investigation, work and collaboration on the part of the R&D, quality, purchasing and operations departments, you should be able to continue to make the consistent, high-quality baked goods you and your consumers expect.