Experiments & Expertise: Ellis County brothers work together to top the 2022 National Wheat Yield Contest

Posted January 19, 2023

Brothers John and Matt Grabbe put Schoenchen, Kansas, near Hays, on the map with two of the top three entries in the 2022 National Wheat Yield Contest. John placed second in Kansas in the winter wheat dryland category with an entry of WestBred WB4422 that yielded 103.24 bushels per acre. Brother Matt took third in the same category with an entry of WestBred WB4792 that yielded 97.88 bushels per acre.

The brothers, who farm as equal partners with their mother, attribute their success this past growing season to the right combination of wheat genetics, farming practices and moisture. A buddy from college who works for WestBred talked the brothers into setting up a wheat plot a few years ago. Last year’s winning entries were the fourth year of having a plot, which the brothers say allows them to try out different varieties and how they respond to their specific farming practices.

This was the first year for planting WB4422 and the third year for planting WB4792, a longer-season variety that allows the brothers to space out their harvest. Both varieties also have good standability and have performed pretty well, even in tough conditions the last couple growing seasons.

This year’s plots were planted on summer fallow ground. The start of the growing season in fall 2021 was decently wet when the brothers drilled wheat so the crop got off to a good start. But from there, the weather turned dry through winter and early spring. Luckily, the area caught some nice rains at the end of April and the beginning of May. Overall, the area received about two-thirds of its normal moisture, but the rain came at exactly the right times.

“We didn’t get a lot of vegetative growth early,” John said. “But the plants were ready to start making seed when it did rain, so they just put all their effort into making seed instead of vegetation.”

When it came time to hop in the combine, the brothers were not sure what to expect but were quickly pleasantly surprised.

“Everybody was going to be pretty happy if the wheat made 45 or 50 bushels per acre, and when we started to combine this year, we were the same way,” John said. “I think it’s a big testament to where genetics have come in the last few years. They’ve just done a better job of breeding to take on that stress and still have that yield potential at the end of the season.”

In addition to variety selection and rainfall, the brothers also attribute this past year’s yields to continued tweaks in their farming practices. They don’t treat their plots differently from what they do across the rest of their operation, maybe pushing a little more nitrogen to catch some additional yield. They also have started focusing more on micronutrients like manganese, zinc and sulfur. No matter the weather, they are committed to their fertility program and applying fungicide.

“We found that, even in a bad year, keeping that plant as healthy as it can be, it’s not searching for nutrients,” Matt said. “In the end, it just needs water.”

This experimentation through variety plots over time is a linchpin to success, not only in the yield contest but also across their operation.

“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” John said. “It does take us some extra time. But, at the end of the day, that little bit of time has made us a lot of money.”

Follow Kansas Wheat in the coming weeks to learn more about the other Kansas winners and their tips and tricks for success this year. Learn more about the National Wheat Yield Contest at yieldcontest.wheatfoundation.org/.


Written by Julia Debes for Kansas Wheat