Wheat and Small Grain Industry

Wheat and other small grain crops have been important to Arkansas since the first European settlers arrived. At first, these crops were mainly used on the farms where they were grown for both human and livestock consumption. Today, these grains are a multi-million-dollar industry in the state and are sold worldwide.

Cereal grain crops are grass species that are grown primarily for their edible seeds or grain. This group includes the world’s six most widely grown crops: wheat, rice, corn, sorghum, millet, and barley. Cereal grain crops with a small plant structure are generally categorized as small grain cereals. Wheat, barley, oats, and rye are considered small grains. Although rice fits the definition, it is often considered separately because of its unique role in Arkansas agriculture.

Today in Arkansas, wheat (Triticum aestivum) and oats (Avena sativa) are the only small grain species of economic importance. During the 1950s, barley was a relatively important crop in Arkansas, reaching a peak of 80,000 acres planted in 1957. Oats were the predominant small grain grown in the state until the early 1960s. An important feed for horses, oats decreased in importance with mechanization of farm equipment and the subsequent decline in the number of draft animals. This is reflected in the amount of land planted in oats going from 699,000 acres in 1955 to only 13,000 acres planted in 1999 (the last year records on oats were kept). Much of the oat production today is sold as seed in Texas to grow crops there. Rye has never been an important crop in Arkansas.

Since the early 1960s, wheat has been the most important small grain crop in the state. From 1993 to 2003, Arkansas farmers planted an average of 1.014 million acres of wheat. This ranked wheat behind soybeans (3.317 million acres) and rice (1.340 million acres) and slightly ahead of cotton (one million acres) as the major crops in the state. In 1982, farmers planted two million acres of wheat and harvested a record 72.2 million bushels. In 1999, the state achieved a record high yield of fifty-six bushels per acre (3360 lbs/acre).

Wheat and oats are unique among Arkansas field crops in that they are winter crops. These species are planted in the fall, usually October or November, and then typically are harvested in June. Winter small grains are often grown in a production system called double-cropping. In this system, soybeans are usually planted immediately after the wheat is harvested, which allows two crops to be harvested in a year.

Small grains play a significant role in the Arkansas economy. From 1994 to 2003, Arkansas produced more than $142 million of wheat annually. Besides the value of the grain itself, the related industries such as fertilizer, seed, and transportation contribute to the state’s economy. At the farm level, not only is the income itself important, but it comes at a critical time of the year, providing much-needed cash flow for farmers to plant soybeans. Ecologically, it provides ground cover during the winter months to help reduce soil erosion on agricultural land and provides a high-quality food source for migratory geese that graze on the young plants.

In the United States, wheat is divided into market classes based on the type of products made from the grain. Hard red wheat is used for bread, while durum wheat is used for pasta. Arkansas wheat is soft red wheat, which has a fine endosperm texture and a lower quantity of protein. Soft wheat flour is ideally suited for bakery products such as cookies and cakes and can usually be found in grocery stores as “cake flour.” “All-purpose flour” usually contains a blend of both soft wheat and hard wheat flour, whereas “bread flour” is made from hard wheat. Arkansas ranks as one of the top four soft red wheat–producing states, along with Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio.

The primary wheat-growing region in Arkansas is in an area in the eastern part of the state stretching roughly from Corning (Clay County) to Little Rock (Pulaski County) south to Eudora (Chicot County). Most of the wheat is transported to the Mississippi River and then shipped around the world. The largest buyers of soft red wheat from 2000 to 2004 were Egypt (1.058 million metric tons or 31.99 million bushels), Mexico (0.770 million metric tons or 23.28 million bushels), China (0.205 million metric tons or 6.20 million bushels), and Nigeria (0.184 million metric tons or 5.56 million bushels). Besides providing grain, the wheat plant itself can be used as forage for livestock. Although a common practice in surrounding states, only a small percentage of the wheat acreage in Arkansas is used for grazing cattle.

Wheat production in Arkansas is plagued by many of the same problems as other states. Diseases such as stripe rust, wheat soilborne mosaic virus, and leaf rust are a constant threat. Insects such as aphids and armyworms can also cause yield reductions. Arkansas wheat producers also face two somewhat unique production constraints. The flat topography and abundant rainfall during the growing season can cause soil to become waterlogged. Most growers address this problem by implementing small drainage ditches throughout the field. During the winter, populations of snow geese grazing on the wheat have gotten so large that they sometimes cause serious concern for farmers. If the geese do not uproot the plant, however, wheat can usually recover from the heavy grazing.

Due to Arkansas’s importance as a soft-wheat state, major agricultural companies have located wheat-breeding stations in the state. Both AgriPro Wheat and Syngenta Seeds, Inc., have locations near Jonesboro (Craighead County), and Pioneer, a DuPont company, has a location in Crittenden County.

In 1985, the Arkansas Wheat Promotion Board was formed by Arkansas wheat growers to “improve the profitability of growing wheat in Arkansas by conducting a program of research, extension, and market development.” The nine-member board allocates funds collected by a producer-approved check-off of one cent per bushel of wheat grown in Arkansas. According to the board, most of the funds are used to “maintain a program of research through the University of Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service and to support domestic and export promotion programs through memberships in national wheat promotion organizations.”

For additional information:
Bacon, R. K., F. L. Kolb, and J. P. Murphy. “The U.S. Soft Red Wheat Pool.” In The World Wheat Book, edited by A. Bonjean and W. Angus. Cachan, France: Editions Lavoisier, 2001.

Kelley, Jason. Arkansas Wheat Production and Management. Little Rock: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, n.p.

Morris, Scott. “New UA Wheat Variety Tailored for State.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 21, 2016, pp. 1G. 8G.

Robert K. Bacon
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


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