Driving through rural Ohio offers a variety of beautiful pastoral scenes: gently rolling hills, orchards in bloom in spring, tall stands of waving cornstalks...and the often seen but seldom noticed Shredded Wheat Ranches.
Surprisingly few people ever realize the connection between the shredded wheat in their breakfast bowl and the hard-working ranchers whose careful husbandry contributes to America's morning nutrition. Indeed, most city folks are totally ignorant of the life-cycle of the shredded wheat, and never connect the crunchy little cakes inside the cereal box with the adult specimens they drive past while motoring through the countryside. This article will offer some insight into the little-known history of the Shredded Wheat and those dedicated ranch families who labor through the spring, summer and fall to foster these amazing creatures.
The Shredded Wheat (Variform Rotator Fibrensii) is a relatively unique life-form, placed in the biological classification halfway between the Woolyworms and the Tumbleweeds. Like its distant relatives the Cat-tails, shredded wheats have been used as food for thousands of years, though the exact time of their original domestication is now lost in the mist of prehistory. A nocturnal herbivore, the shredded wheat converts common chlorophyll grasses into its own fiber body; shredded wheats have a complex life-cycle that passes through several distinct phases before reaching adulthood. In the larval stage, the shredded wheat body is a fibrous, grain-tasting and nutritious vegetable compound digestible by humans; in the adult stage, the tough fibers are no longer suitable for human consumption, but are typically used as fodder for cattle and many other grazing animals.
Shredded Wheats are markedly territorial and typically inhabit the same fields generation after generation; they are extremely social critters and are always seen in herds, which can range from a few dozen to hundreds or even thousands in number. They are found throughout the temperate zones of the world, leading paleo-wheatologists to conclude that the first proto-wheats probably evolved in the fertile grasslands of southern Asia, and then migrated (extremely slowly) into Europe and up across the Beringian Land Bridge into the New World shortly after the close of the last Ice Age.
Shredded Wheat in The Larval Stage
Shredded wheat egg-spores are minute, almost microscopic in size; they are typically mixed with water and sprayed over flat fields or gently rolling hills in early spring as soon as the ground thaws and grasses have begun to sprout. The egg-spores hatch in the first warm nights of spring and tiny larvae begin rolling silently through the fields, quietly converting the chlorophyll grasses to generate their own fibroid body substance (plate 1). Typically unnoticed by the casual observer, the slow movement of Shredded Wheat larvae through the open fields after sunset causes a gentle rippling or waving motion in the grass, often mistaken for the evening breeze. In about two to three weeks, the larvae reach the first size suitable for harvesting, usually referred to as the 'mini-wheat' stage. Ranchers round up the first larval shredded wheat herds with special vacuum-raking machines, which comb thousands of the tiny critters from the grass and suck them up into large hoppers. Once the initial harvest is complete, the larval mini-wheats are slowly dry-roasted, which draws out their high concentration of natural sugar-sap and results in the characteristic whitish 'sugar-coat'; once the drying process is complete, they are shipped by truck or rail to the cereal processing plants, where they are weighed into cellophane bags and boxed for sale.
A percentage of the larval mini-wheats remain in the fields, where they are allowed to graze for several more weeks until they reach their full larval size, at which time the second harvest roundup is done. At their full larval growth, the wheats are several times the size of the 'mini-wheats' and have a somewhat darker green coloration; three to five of the large larval wheats will fill an average cereal bowl. Older larvae have a lower sugar-sap content, and turn a rich yellowish-brown when dry-roasted (plate 2). Since they typically lack the 'sugar-coat' of the mini-wheats, they are usually served with a sprinkling of processed cane sugar and/or ripe fruits. As with the smaller variety, once the dry-roast process is complete, they are shipped by truck or rail to the processing plants, where they are counted into bags and packaged for sale.
Shredded Wheat in The Pupa Stage
Shredded Wheats increase dramatically in size at the close of the larval stage (midsummer), developing a voracious appetite which causes them to gorge until they pass into the pupa stage; once they reach the pupa stage, their fibers become coarse and tough and are no longer digestible by humans, though they are fodder for cattle or other grazing animals. At the pupa stage, shredded wheats lose their rounded ovoid shape and assume the classic chunky rectangular form (plate 3).
In the final hours of late larva-stage, wheats can strip an entire field overnight and reach full pupa form by daylight; once they enter the pupa stage, they become dormant, even at night. Passing motorists are often surprised to notice what had been a field of tall grasses a day or two ago, only to see it filled with a herd of wheats (plate 4). Since shredded wheats are dormant during the pupa stage, ranchers use this time to stack them on trucks or trailers and transport them to storage (you've probably seen this many times), or move them to other fields to pass through metamorphosis into their full adult stage.
The Adult Shredded Wheat
In late summer/early fall, the shredded wheat abruptly comes out of the pupa stage and metamorphoses into its full adult form. Regaining their cylindrical shape, they quickly resume grazing and reach full adult size incredibly rapidly; as seen in the late larval period, wheats in the adult stage have tremendous appetites and despite their extremely short legs, can easily roll acres of tall grasses into their enlarging bodies during the course of a single night (plate 5). While they have never been observed moving in daylight, adult shredded wheats have been known to move from one field into another while feeding under cover of darkness. Like all nocturnal critters, they are extremely sensitive to light, and will freeze like rabbits at the first sign of the headlights of approaching cars.
Since they often reach a weight of 1000 pounds or more, the adult stage is the only time the shredded wheat has the potential to become dangerous. Their movements are slow but almost unstoppable, and a rancher unwise enough to doze off in the field could find himself pinned and slowly crushed flat underneath the ponderous beasty. To forestall such accidents, wheats in the adult form are usually stood up on their flat end (plate 6); like turtles, once their tiny legs are off the ground, adult shredded wheats are completely helpless. Adult wheats are typically stored standing on end in large stacks, to insure that they don't stray off from the herd during the night.
Shredded Wheat Husbandry
Mid to late fall is the shredded wheat mating season; the adult shredded wheats quickly lose their cylindrical shape and 'fluff out' into loose dome-shaped mounds or humps of fiber. This characteristic form is usually identified among the ranchers as "getting shaggy". Though they are sometimes solitary, adult wheats preparing to mate usually group together into small clusters at close quarters when getting ready to shag (giving rise to that classically known phrase "cluster hump") (plate 7). To control the herd size and forestall overgrazing (as well as maintaining optimal food value in an especially nutritious herd), many wheat ranchers often use large-size prophylactics at the onset of the mating season to inhibit the adults from going into shag. Plate 8 shows a small herd of adult Shredded Wheats with condoms applied to prevent them from shagging.
Once the adult shredded wheats have mated, their life cycle is complete. The adults never return to grazing, usually (like most of us) falling into completely disorganized heaps as soon as they have finished shagging, and they begin producing quantities of their dusty egg-spores. Ranchers normally store the remains of spent (or "shagged out") adult wheats in the overhead storage lofts of barns, where the loose fibers can be tossed down with large forks to feed cattle or horses in the stalls below. Throughout the winter, egg spores filter through cracks in the loft floors and are collected and bagged, waiting for spring and renewal of the next generation in the continuing saga of the noble Shredded Wheat.