June 6, 2011

Heat, drought spur early wheat cutting

The custom cutters arrived around noon Monday at Karen and Harold Sturm's farm near Caldwell.

The custom cutters arrived around noon Monday at Karen and Harold Sturm's farm near Caldwell.

With 2,500 acres of wheat to harvest, the Sturm family — in its fifth generation of farming — will be in full swing by today.

"I don't know, I am not an expert, but it is pretty short. It's been pretty dry," Karen Sturm said Monday. "It's hard to tell until you get in there."

Around her farm on Monday, neighbors were cutting. But the true sign of harvest — the long lines of trucks at the local elevator — haven't been seen yet.

"People have just been getting started today and over the weekend," she said.

She has hopes for this year's crop. It won't be a bumper year, she says. She's hoping for an average year.

"We got a 2-inch rain about a month ago. If it had been a month sooner that would have been so much better," Sturm said.

She knows other parts of Kansas — and even around the world — haven't had the rain.

The worst droughts in decades are wilting wheat fields worldwide.

Parts of China, the biggest grower, had the least rain in a century, some European regions are the driest in 50 years and almost half the winter-wheat crop in the U.S., the largest exporter, is rated poor or worse. Inventory is dropping 8.8 percent, the most in five years, Rabobank International says. Prices will advance 20 percent to as high as $9.25 a bushel by Dec. 31, a Bloomberg survey of 14 analysts and traders shows.

Wheat as much as doubled in the past year as crops failed, spurring Ukraine and Russia to curb shipments and increasing the U.S. share of global sales by the most since 2004. Russia ending its export ban on July 1 and Ukraine lifting quotas may not be enough as crops wither elsewhere, fueling gains in food prices which the United Nations says are already near a record.

And, in Kansas, which at one time billed itself as the breadbasket of the world, things don't look good.

"In 32 years, I've never seen so many problems in so many places," said Dan Basse, the president of AgResource Co., a farm researcher in Chicago.

"We're concerned about the world story now," said Basse, who has been studying agricultural markets since 1979.

On Monday, new wheat was selling at $8.39 at the Farmers Cooperative in Protection.

Brian Harris, manager of the cooperative that also serves Sitka and Ashland, said the moisture content on the wheat has been regularly testing between 8 and 9 percent. Test weights have been averaging between 52 and 60 per bushel.

"I haven't heard of any yields yet, but I am hoping for 20 to 25 bushels per acre," he said.

A string of days topping 100 degrees and dry south winds gusting 30 mph or more have moved up the wheat harvest by at least two weeks.

"With so much heat, it is shriveling the grain — what grain there is out there," said Wendy Mawhirter of St. John.

The wheat kernel shrivels in the heat and quickly looses its quality.

She and her husband, Jeff, are looking to get into the fields by next week.

Earlier this year, they had hopes for the crop, but they've since been dashed because of the drought. And moisture that was stirred up by recent thunderstorms was also met by violent winds and hail.

"At first, it looked really good. But we got absolutely no rain.... Out here, we've had a total of an inch since March," Mawhirter said.

It is not uncommon for that portion of Kansas to receive at least five inches of rain by early June. But that just hasn't happened this year.

The Mawhirters are already looking at 20 percent damage because of the recent storms. They are hoping the wheat makes 20 to 25 bushels to the acre. Normally they get 40 bushels to the acre or more.

"There is still good grain out there, but the stalks are bent and broke off," Mawhirter said.

Some of the wheat in fields is white in areas because it has burned up, Mawhirter said.

"We are just hoping that whatever we can get with the combine will be good," she said.

Once the wheat is harvested, without rain, other crops could be jeopardy.

"If we don't get rain, milo won't come up and there is no use doing it," she said. "It's a tough deal."

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