The freak late-spring blizzard over the weekend could prove disastrous for farmers in far western Kansas.
It’s still too early to know for sure, but some western Kansas farmers are reporting much of their wheat was damaged or killed by the weight of the wet snow.
A more exact answer will come during this week’s annual tour of the state’s wheat country by dozens of agricultural analysts and industry experts. They will examine hundreds of fields in central and western Kansas and will issue a forecast on the state’s wheat condition and yield on Thursday.
In 2016, the Kansas wheat harvest had a value of about $2 billion.
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The weekend’s snow most deeply affected a line of counties near the Colorado state line, reports the National Weather Service in Dodge City. The deepest accumulation from Sunday’s blizzard was 16 to 18 inches along the Kansas-Colorado state line. Dodge City and LaCrosse were on the eastern edge of the snow.
For those affected, the impact was deep.
Gary Millershaski, who farms in Kearny County west of Garden City, said he and his family went to Dodge City on Saturday night for a concert but couldn’t get back home that night. They came back early Sunday morning, but then the blizzard hit.
“The snow was blowing so hard you could only see maybe 100 feet,” he said.
His cattle were blasted by the wind and snow. He had about 40 calves and has lost at least 10, he said.
“They will bawl trying to find their mothers, but the wind will carry it, and they’ll get disoriented and wander off,” he said. “It’s gut wrenching.”
He was spending Monday cleaning the near-freezing muck off his cattle and clearing a spot for them to gather and get warm. Now he’s worried about when the electricity will come back on so he can get water to his cattle.
And the wheat crop?
It’s too early to know, he said. There is still 6 inches of snow on the ground, with 4- or 5-foot drifts.
“It’s like if you didn’t get a paycheck all year, and when that time came to get one, they said, ‘Sorry, let’s try again next year.’ ”
Farther south, near Sublette, farmer Rusty Sherwood also said it’s too early to know, but he’s estimating 80 percent of his crop is wiped out.
“The heavy snow just broke it,” he said. “It looks like someone drove a steamroller over it.”
He said he’s heard that if you follow U.S. 83 north, most of the wheat west of that line is largely gone.
No more snow is in the near forecast for western Kansas. The snow should be nearly melted, although temperatures were expected to dip below freezing on Monday night.
The Kansas Division of Emergency Management scaled back its operations as of 7 p.m. Monday and will return to its regular schedule on Tuesday. A reduced staff will remain in the State Emergency Operations Center overnight to receive calls from counties.
As many as 42,000 customers lost power in western Kansas due to heavy snow and high winds Saturday night through Sunday. Power crews are beginning to restore power but have been hampered by deep snow and blocked roads.
In the meantime, emergency management personnel will watch the weather in southeast Kansas in case more rainfall brings flooding.
The financial implications for farmers and the state’s rural areas are a little more complicated.
Wheat futures jumped about 5 or 6 percent on Monday to $4.49 per bushel in expectation that part of the hard red winter wheat crop was wiped out.
Farmers farther east could benefit from the higher prices, depending on when and where they sell.
The affected farmers in western Kansas have insurance, Sherwood said. Those whose wheat crop is wiped out would typically recoup 65 to 75 percent of the expected value of the crop, based on previous yields and current prices.
But, even so, it’s a blow to a group that has struggled with low prices – often below the cost of production – for both crops and cattle. They came through 2016 in decent shape financially only because of record harvests.
“It’s just really unfortunate to have this in the middle of a really tough ag economy,” said Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat Commission. “Having to rely on insurance is making it just that much harder.”