The Kansas wheat harvest is expected to start in about 10 days, and most farmers expect a fairly miserable crop.
In its May 1 forecast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast 260 million bushels, the smallest harvest since 1996, with an average yield of 31 bushels per acres.
Since then, the sun has beamed down, winds have blown hard, temperatures have been in the 90 a few times – and not enough rain has fallen, particularly in western Kansas, to make up any deficits.
In just the last month, the quality of the crop has suffered. The USDA rated the crop 52 percent fair/good and 47 percent poor/very poor in early May, and 38 percent fair/good and 61 percent poor/very poor last week.
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“Things have gone downhill since May 1,” said Jim Shroyer, an agronomy professor at Kansas State University and an extension crops specialist.
This year’s lousy harvest is far from rare. Although last year the state produced nearly 320 million bushels of wheat, harvests in 2007 and 2011 were nearly as bad as what is projected this year.
This year is the third year of drought in Kansas. The off-again-on-again drought has parched western Kansas wheat harvests all three of those years. What has made this year different is that the drought has extended its reach to central Kansas, including the Wichita area, and it has a hard grip now on more than half of the state.
The evidence of drought can be seen: Fields sport sparse stands of puny plants only 10 to 20 inches tall. And in those fewer wheat plants, there are fewer kernals of wheat.
Gary Friesen, general manager of the Scott Co-op Association, in Scott City in western Kansas, estimated that production in his area will be about half the usual amount.
While recent rains were welcome, they came too late to save this year’s harvest. The yields were largely set by the time it rained, although the moisture could help bolster yields in northern Kansas where the wheat had not advanced as far as it had in central and southern Kansas.
Friesen said that the fear is that the drought-stricken wheat plants won’t fill out the wheat kernels to their usual weight. The test weight for wheat is typically around 60 pounds per bushel. If it’s below 55 pounds per bushel, it becomes harder to sell.
“Conditions are not looking great out here,” he said. “We’re desperately hoping we get some rain. We really need the moisture to help fill out this crop.”
As always in farming, how well or how poorly a field is doing can vary a lot.
Max Tjaden, a farmer near Clearwater, said some of his fields are OK and some are bad, depending on when they were planted, how much rain they received since January and the wheat variety used.
Rains were plentiful for about a month or so in late July and August last year. Tjaden planted wheat in the fall after he harvested his corn and soybeans.
Because his corn was planted earlier and was fully matured by late summer, it didn’t absorb all the moisture from rains that fell. Soybeans, on the other hand, were planted later and kept drinking until close to harvest in October. That meant that wheat planted in the fall in the former corn field had more moisture for growth than did wheat planted in the former soybean field.
“I’ve had 4 or 5 inches of moisture since the first week of August, including any snow,” he said.
He also noted that one of his wheat varieties, Duster, clearly did better than another he used, Everest.
In 2013, his farm produced 51 bushels of wheat per acre, he said. This year, he’s hoping to get 15 to 20 bushels per acre.
He said he has had his crop insurance adjuster out to look at one of his fields a few weeks ago. He will be paid the difference between his actual production and 75 percent of the field’s average production. He’ll get some cash from the insurance to help cover expenses, he said.
But he warned against trying to calculate an hourly wage – it would just be too depressing.
Frank Riedl, general manager of the Great Bend Co-op, is estimating he’ll see about 40 percent of typical production in his area of central Kansas.
“We’re hoping to be surprised,” he said.
The shortfall of about 2 million bushels of wheat from the area served by his co-op will translate into real economic impact, he said. He estimated that with wheat at $7 per bushel, the area will forgo $14 million in income.
“That’s $14 million in purchasing power gone from the community,” he said. “That’s a lot for this area, although the insurance will help.”