Kansas farmers have begun preparing their fields to plant winter wheat, amid concern that the long drought has left the ground too dry to get the 2012 crop off to a good start this fall.
Nonetheless, industry experts are expecting a rise in the number of wheat acres because fields of failed corn and other spring-planted crops are now free at the optimal time for winter wheat planting. Farmers who didn't harvest a crop this fall also need the money from a winter wheat crop. And the price of wheat now is not too shabby either.
"There is a lot more ground that could be planted to wheat," said Jim Shroyer, extension wheat specialist at Kansas State University. "If we do get moisture in the next month, you will see the failed acres go to wheat. It is a matter of cash."
The key is whether Kansas gets enough rain in the next few weeks to germinate the wheat before winter settles in.
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Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported this week that topsoil moisture is short across 70 percent of the state. But the statewide averages say little about the vastly different conditions faced by farmers planting wheat in different parts of the state.
In northwest Kansas, Sharon Springs farmer David Schemm started seeding his first fields of winter wheat Monday — a bit earlier than usual to take advantage of the moisture left behind by recent storms. Some wheat has already begun to poke through the surface of the soil.
Schemm said he plans to plant 4,000 acres of winter wheat this year. Last year he put in 4,500 acres of wheat, but the wheat on nearly 2,000 of those acres never came up, and he ended up replanting milo on those failed wheat acres this spring. It was the wheat he had planted earliest in the fall that survived.
"You got to play it by ear," Schemm said. "Right now we have great moisture to put our wheat in."
But growers in other parts of the state are hoping to get enough moisture in the coming weeks before planting their wheat.
In drought-plagued southwestern Kansas, KASS rated that 2 percent of topsoil moisture was adequate and subsoil moisture was rated at zero. South-central Kansas is also hurting with just 5 percent rated with adequate topsoil moisture.
Shroyer, the agronomist, said surface soil moisture of 1 to 3 inches at wheat planting time is needed for the crop to germinate and emerge. For long-term growth, wheat will eventually need subsoil moisture, something that could be replenished with good winter snowfalls, or timely rains come spring.
"Really a full (subsoil moisture) profile at planting time is not necessary to have good yields at the end, but what is necessary is to have good surface moisture," Shroyer said.
Hoisington farmer Gene Stoskopf said he will probably plant his usual 1,000 acres of winter wheat. But in central Kansas where he farms, producers usually don't start planting wheat until the latter part of September.
"We will plant wheat. It is just we have quite a bit of time to wait," Stoskopf said. "If it doesn't rain, we can wait until mid-October."
It is extremely hard to get the crop insurance program to pay farmers who are unable to plant because of drought conditions, Stoskopf said.
But some growers in Texas or Oklahoma have considered filing preventive planting claims on crop insurance because those states have seen more heat and less moisture than Kansas, said Dalton Henry, director of governmental affairs for the industry group Kansas Wheat.
"There is always the possibility of getting that rain," Henry said. "With commodity prices where they are right now, I think that a lot of producers are thinking that they would rather have the possibility of getting a crop — as opposed to letting the land sit idle."