Wheat 101: A Guide to Wheat

Wheat 101: A Guide to Wheat

What comes to mind when you think of wheat? Amber waves of grain? Bread? Pasta? Cakes? Cookies? Asian noodles? Flat breads? Would it surprise you to know that each of those six products could each be made from a difference class of wheat?? Wheat is divided into six distinct classes, several of them are grown in specific geographical regions and have distinct milling qualities. Not only does each class have distinct milling qualities, they each have distinct products that require those qualities and thrive in varying geographical regions. The diversity within wheat – which is often thought of as a general term – is fascinating. Hopefully you can bear with me and find this post interesting as it is fairly lengthy.

Classes of Wheat: 

Hard Red Winter 

Hard Red Spring 

Soft Red Wheat 

Soft White Wheat

Hard White Wheat


Wheat is grown in 42 states in the United States and the diverse growing regions allow the United States to produce all six classes of wheat. Here in Montana we raise Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Durum, and a small amount of Hard White. Here on our farm the majority of the wheat we raise in Hard Red Winter. We also will grow a small amount of Hard Red Spring. U.S. Wheat Associates has put together a map to allow our customers to better visualize the growing regions for each individual class. As you can see Hard Red Winter is the most commonly grown class of wheat. It is versatile and hearty which allows it to thrive in the various climatic conditions. Hard Red Spring wheat – specifically Dark Northern Spring Wheat – thrives in the northern tier of the country, grown specifically in Montana and North Dakota. Hard Red Spring wheat is also popular in Canada.

So what makes each class of wheat special? They each have distinct qualities that make them attractive to our customers both domestically and internationally. Each class of wheat sets itself apart from the others based on hardness, color, and time of planting. Each class also has different milling qualities that allow our customers world wide to enjoy delicious wheat products. These milling qualities range from: protein content, extraction (percentage by weight of flour obtained from wheat sample – for commercial mills this is an important productivity metric), wet gluten, amylograph (measures flour starch pasting properties), starch damage, gluten index (this measures gluten strength and is an important test for pasta producers), and several others.

Aside from the quality required by the millers to make certain products, grain is also analyzed through the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) of the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration Act (GIPSA). FGIS sets the standard for U.S. grain grades and grain requirements. These grades are rated No. 1-5 and are similar to grain grading ratings in countries such as Canada. Regardless of class, wheat is required to be sampled when it is sold to elevators and into the commercial market. These grades not only dictate the final cash price we receive from the elevator it also allows the elevators the ability to blend wheat to a certain quality before it is delivered to an end use customer.

Hard Red Winter Wheat (HRW)

Hard Red Winter is the most commonly grown in the United States. It accounts for a full 40% of production and roughly 1/3 of the crop is exported. According to Plains Grain Inc. Nigeria is the top export market for hard red winter wheat from the United States. For us in Montana 73% of our HRW is exported with Japan being our top destination.

HRW is grown across the largest geographical regions of all the classes of wheat. It is the wheat class of choice from Texas to South Dakota, extending through much of Montana as well. It is also grown in Washington and California. Despite the wide ranging geographical region HRW is grown in – each area seems to have distinctive properties that sets it apart. California for example largely produces their HRW under irrigation and prides themselves on large kernels, high yields, low moisture and high flour extraction rates. Their wheat is often blended with other sources of HRW to create the perfect blend for each individual miller.

Montana prides itself on producing high quality wheat. In the most recent Plains Grain Inc crop quality survey Montana did not have any wheat did not quality for USDA No. 1 grade. Montana also continued to produce high protein wheat (11.5% protein content is considered “ordinary” for HRW). Our HRW is commonly primarily used for Asian style noodles, hard rolls, flat breads, cereal and general purpose flour. We pride ourselves on providing our customers with high quality HRW and enjoy seeing “high gluten” on the side of flour bags produced from our hard red winter wheat.

Hard Red Spring Wheat (HRS)

Hard Red Spring wheat has a fairly specific geographic location that this thrives in, unlike its winter sibling. HRS is grown primarily in Montana, North Dakota, Northern Minnesota, it is also grown in isolated areas in South Dakota, Idaho, and Washington. North Dakota is the top producer of HRS in the country in terms of both acres and production. HRS is considered the “aristocrat” of wheat when it comes to baking bread. It is known for it’s high protein content as well as its gluten content.

HRS thrives in regions that have short growing seasons and is typically the last of the wheat crops to be harvested in the United States (along with Durum). HRS is also known to many in the industry as “Dark Northern Spring” (DNS) which is a reference to its high quality, specifically its high protein content. The combination of quality factors contributes to its dark reddish color compared to the other classes of wheat.

HRS is most often utilized to produce the worlds pastries, bagels, artisan breads, whole grain breads, and pizza crusts. Millers will also utilize certain amounts of HRS as a blending ingredient with other classes of wheat to create the desired qualities for their flour products. As producers we are not allowed to mix classes of wheat however to achieve a proper end product millers and bakers will occasionally mix different classes to achieve a desired result.

For our farm we produce a limited amount of HRS as it does not do as well in our area as winter wheat. Our weather patterns do not lend to high yielding HRS as a result of high temperatures and limited rain during the grain fill period of development in July. By contrast several hundred miles north of us in Montana is the heart of DNS production. They have suitable weather for HRS production however they struggle to produce winter wheat because it cannot survive their long winters (even a few hundred miles extends the cold winter days considerably).

Despite the high demand for high protein DNS there is a growing demand for low protein HRS that is utilized by the malt houses to create popular wheat beers. Similar to malt barley which has low protein requirements, the malting process for wheat beers also requires low protein spring wheat. Last year we contracted low protein spring wheat with one of the local malt houses, we discovered however that in dryland production it is very difficult to raise low protein spring wheat without sacrificing yield. Our weather patterns also make attempts to grow low protein spring wheat difficult.

** The picture below is of lower protein Hard Red Winter wheat, by comparison DNS would have a darker color overall and the yellow “bellies” present in this picture would not be there. High quality DNS has a consistent and beautiful color. **

Soft Red Wheat (SRW) 

Soft red wheat is the wheat of choice across much of the eastern half of the United States. Soft red wheat is a weak gluten wheat that is primarily used for pretzels, crackers, pastries, and flat breads. Unlike HRW and HRS it is not known for high protein content and in 2017 Quality Survey conducted by U.S. Wheat Associates averaged a U.S. No. 2 grade. Despite the No. 2 grade is is a crop that is utilized domestically far more than most of the other classes of wheat. Limited production and its unique milling qualities allow a majority of the supply to remain in the domestic market. The most recent report from the USDA indicates only 30% of the 2017 HRS wheat crop was exported while 51% was used domestically for food production. Outside of bread products SRW appears in certain whiskeys and even some candies, such as Twizzlers.

Soft red wheat is often grown in areas where it is utilized as a rotational crops to compliment corn, soybeans, cotton, and peanuts among other crops. It is also grown in diverse climates ranging from the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes to Chesapeake Bay down to the Gulf Coast. I have only seen SRW on limited occasions while traveling. National Association of Wheat Growers also provides samples of the different classes of wheat at their booth at Commodity Classic. 2015 was honestly the first year I had ever touched SRW. To my surprise, soft is a misnomer, it is not “soft” to the touch – in fact it feels remarkable similar to HRW. I was also able to investigate SRW up close in Germany while on our farm tours there.

** Pictured is SRW grown in Germany which will be utilized for feed wheat.

Soft White Wheat (SWW) 

Soft white wheat is the pride of the Pacific Northwest. Aside from isolated areas in Michigan and Upstate New York, SWW is primarily produced in Washington, Oregon, and southern Idaho. SWW in contrast to HRS and HRW, is known for low protein and weak gluten. In fact, producers of SWW will receive a dockage from elevators if they deliver wheat that has too high of a protein content. For a producer such as myself who aims for high protein content, this is a foreign concept.

Soft white wheat is extremely popular in the Asian markets and a significant amount of SWW is exported to Asia. It is also used to create cakes, biscuits, and crackers. SWW consists of two “sub-classes” – Club and western white. Millers like SWW because of the lighter color of the kernels which create the desired color for many Asian customers. SWW has been referred to as the “cashmere” of wheat.

Hard White Wheat (HWW) 

Hard white wheat is the newest member of #teamwheat and is closely related to HRW. Hard white wheat distinguishes itself by providing millers with a higher milling extraction rate as well as requiring less sweetener when used in whole wheat products than it’s HRW sibling. HWW is growing in popularity across the globe, however it is grown on limited acres in the United States. It has similar diversity to it’s HRW sibling as it is grown in limited areas in Montana, California, Washington, Colorado, and Kansas among others. For growers such as myself, we have a difficult time finding a market location for HWW. My dad grew HWW for several years in the early-2000s. We encountered quality issues as well as difficulties transporting it to the marketplace. The available varieties at the time produced high yields (to this day it is the highest yielding wheat crop we have raised) however quality issues plagued the crop. We either had high protein and nearly unmarketable test weight or we had nearly unmarketable protein and high test weight.

Across the world however there is growing excitement about the qualities of HWW and the potential it has for the export market. Australia produces a considerable amount of white wheat and has been successful at marketing it’s distinct qualities throughout the global export markets.


The last class of wheat is also to most unique: durum. Durum requires specific quality characteristics and is utilized for pasta production as well as a certain amount of breads specific to the Mediterranean. Northern Durum is grown in Montana and North Dakota while Desert Durum is grown in Arizona and California under irrigation. Desert Durum has specific characteristics and utilization requirements mandated by Arizona Grain Research and Promotion Council and the Californian Wheat Commission. These two entities allow production specifically under irrigation and only allow specific Durum growers to produce their varieties. They provide their customers with the ability to identity preserve the products which allow them to pre-contract with growers and ensure they are receiving the quality specifications they require.

Northern Durum is also usually pre-contracted and has detailed quality requirements for delivery. North Dakota is also the largest producer of durum in the country followed by Montana. Of all the wheat classes durum is the “hardest” by rating and usually has the highest protein content. Unfortunately Northern Durum has been plagued by Fusarium Head Blight, a particularly troublesome and difficult fungus to control. It is so problematic and damaging that there is an entire federal research program devoted to irradiating the disease and providing producers with better tools to combat the disease. The Wheat Barley Scab Initiative focuses on providing a solution to this damaging disease that impacts wheat, barley, corn and other commodities however it has been particularly damaging in durum regions in recent years.

** Pictured is the easier to control, but still incredibly damaging, wheat fungus: Striped Rust. **


Wheat is one of the oldest commodities in the world and its evolution has allowed us to expand our bread based products into the thousands of options we have today. This did not even begin to crack the surface of the uses for wheat, including feed, bi-product uses, and other alternative uses – including kitty litter (it is true, I saw a box of wheat kitty litter at Target a few months ago). Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to identify the class of wheat simply by looking at a field of waving grain. The plants, despite variations between the hundreds of varieties within each class, look nearly identical even to a trained eye. Helping to identify the various classes in the field was not really my goal in writing this post however.

I am hopeful though that the next time you enjoy a box of Ritz crackers you think of the wheat producers in Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, or Georgia. The next time you have a bowl of Asian noodles you think of the club wheat producers in the Pacific Northwest. Or the next time you are baking cookies you think of the wheat producers across the Northern Plains. The next time you are in the grocery store and reach for a loaf of whole wheat bread you can think of myself and the other HRW wheat producers scattered from Texas to Montana. Lastly as you are enjoying a bowl of spaghetti you think of the Durum producers in the Northern Plains or the Desert Durum producers of Arizona and California. Wheat and wheat farmers really can be found “from sea to shining sea”.



  1. Kent Braathen
    January 27, 2018 / 9:21 pm

    Are there “winter varieties” of the soft white, hard white and soft red wheats??

    • BigSkyFarmHer
      January 27, 2018 / 9:28 pm

      Both of the soft wheats are primarily winter wheats. Hard white has both winter and spring varieties. The SRW is often used in a double crop rotation behind soybeans or cotton for example.

      We planted hard white winter. We have a neighbor doing a very limited amount of hard white spring right now. As far as I know there’s not any quality characteristics that distinguish HWW and HWS.

  2. Kent Braathen
    January 27, 2018 / 9:33 pm

    Thank you! I thought that there was soft white winter wheat, but wasn’t sure whether the others were winter or spring.

  3. Kenny Streiff
    September 14, 2019 / 11:11 am

    An irradiation program for Fusarian head blight? Is this a typo? Was it supposed to say eradication? Great post. Very informative.

    • BigSkyFarmHer
      September 14, 2019 / 11:13 am

      Yeah, I’ll have to go find it – but I’m sure it’s a typo. There’s no irradiation program for Fusarium

  4. Ernest Downes
    November 14, 2020 / 3:31 pm

    Great article – thank you for taking the time to write a post it! For a class, I’m writing a short paper on mitigation and adaptation to 2050 on wheat farming, using soft white wheat as the variety (am in the Pacific NW). Four questions, if you have the time?
    1) Do you think your wheat varieties (or allocated acreages) will change with warming/drier growing seasons?
    2) What do you see as the biggest adaptation changes/challenges your farm will expect to make in the next 30 years do to climate change?
    3) Is the Desert Durum also affected by Fusarium Head Blight?
    4) What (if any) wheat characteristic trends have you seen (if any) in the last 5 years? Declining protein levels? Needing to additional nitrogen to applied fertilizers?

    Thank you for any time you spend on these questions. Most of my sources are on-line references, so to be able to ask someone in the business, is special!

    Ernest Downes

    • BigSkyFarmHer
      November 14, 2020 / 5:51 pm

      1) No I don’t – take a look at the Montana climate assessment. It’s actually interesting – it was a study commissioned to look at Climate Change’s impact on MT agriculture. Flash droughts for warm season crops looks to be an issue – but winter wheat appears to have favorable conditions.
      2) Extreme weather events and flash droughts.
      3) Not that I know of. Fusarium tends to originate where there’s corn in the rotation. It’s slowly been expanding west into Montana.
      4) None. We’ve seen exceptional quality and yield.

  5. Ernest Downes
    November 14, 2020 / 6:48 pm

    Thank you very much for your reply and great info! The Montana climate assessment suggestion is very helpful! Washington state has a similar assessment, but is not as recent.

    Your posts are very insightful and informative. Kudos to you and all farmers who are willing to take the risks and bring your products to market!! It is absolutely incredible!!

    Ernest Downes

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