The Kansas wheat crop is just starting to turn gold, but how much of that gold lands in farmers’ pockets is up in the air.
Ask farmers what kind of yields they expect and the first response is: We won’t know until the combine cuts it.
But south-central Kansas wheat farmers will admit that their crop is looking pretty good following timely rains and cool temperatures.
Their biggest fear is a blast of heat that would sap the plants of their ability to produce extra kernels.
Mick Rausch, who farms near Garden Plain, said the wheat plants on his farm have created two kernels in a row, or mesh, and are working on a third. If it stays cool and wet, but not too wet, the plants will produce a fourth.
Three kernels per mesh tends to mean an average to above-average yield. A fourth could mean a bin buster.
“A couple of 100-degree days would pretty much put an end to that,” he said.
Days in the 90s aren’t too much of a threat, if there’s moisture around. But a spell of hot, dry days could cause plants to rapidly shrivel – along with hopes for big yields.
Conditions have generally improved over the course of the spring, but the drought was so deep that western Kansas couldn’t recover.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated May 1 that the state’s wheat crop would drop 22 percent, to 299.7 million bushels, from last year’s 382.2 million bushels.
The USDA this week will release its harvest forecast as of June 1.
If the May 1 forecast holds, the number of acres producing wheat will be down 11 percent, mostly because drought has stunted so many fields in western Kansas. Yields statewide are forecast to average 37 bushels an acre, down 5 bushels from 2012.
The amount of wheat harvested is expected to be down 48 percent in southwest Kansas, 45 percent in the west-central region, and 43 percent in the northwest region.
In south-central Kansas, the state’s most-productive wheat-growing region, the crop is projected to be down 19 percent, to 75.5 million bushels.
Acres planted to wheat are down 9 percent, and the yield is projected at 38 bushels an acre this year, down from 43 bushels last year.
Conditions continue strong in Sedgwick County, so far, said Brent Gruenbacher, a farmer near Colwich.
“Before we had that three inches last week, we were starting to think we needed a little something, but it’s fine now,” he said.
He’s forecasting an above-average harvest, although not as good as last year’s exceptional harvest.
He said his wheat has just starting to develop a gold tint and predicted the cutting will begin between June 20 and June 25.
In Ellsworth County, northwest of Sedgwick County, the rain has been a spottier. As a result, some farms look great, some less so, said Brent Goss, Ellsworth County extension agent. Those parts that were dry last year were dry again.
Overall, he said, the county is looking at an average harvest in the mid-to-upper 40 bushels an acre.
“But if you go much farther west, it gets bad in a hurry,” he said.
The western half of the state remains in exceptional or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website, but not every place is bone dry.
“We run from pretty tough to pretty decent,” said Jared Petersilie, an agricultural extension agent for Lane, Ness and Rush counties, about two-thirds of the way toward the western edge of the state.
He said precipitation across his three counties ranged from 0.1 inches to 4 inches of rain this year. It’s just where the rain clouds passed over, he said.
The result, he said, is that some farmers may see 40 bushels an acre and some might see 10.
“If we can get through the next three weeks without a hail storm, we ought to be able to run some combines and get something out of the fields,” he said.
Farther west still, those dry spots become more common.
Roger May farms near Oberlin, in northwest Kansas.
He said he has already torn up 10 percent of his wheat fields, which the insurance adjuster appraised at 4.7 bushels an acre. Another field, he said, was estimated at 8.5 bushels an acre.
“We’ve had a few showers that give a little hope, but not a lot,” he said. “Our adjuster said he’s seeing a lot 6- to 12-bushel-per-acre fields.”