How bad is the state’s wheat crop, after a freak spring blizzard in western Kansas?
Scores of agriculture industry professionals spread out across Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday to find out, as part of the annual Kansas Winter Wheat Tour.
The verdict: We’ll have to wait a week or two.
A lot is riding on the result. Feedlot operators and farmers in the western third of the state are already saying the blizzard killed thousands of cattle, delivering a significant financial hit to an industry already hurting from two years of low prices.
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There are no clear answers, as yet, on the true number of lost cattle, and there may never be, because there is no mandatory reporting mechanism, according to the State Department of Agriculture.
“All we have are anecdotes and pictures,” said department spokeswoman Heather Landsdowne.
If the blizzard also killed a big part of the wheat crop in about two dozen western Kansas counties, it will add another dent in the state’s depressed rural economy.
The state’s wheat crop averaged $1.9 billion in value over the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For farmers outside the freeze zone, things look pretty good. News of the potential crop losses pushed up wheat prices by 10 percent in the last week, and all of that rain thickened up the fields in central and eastern Kansas.
“Above average” is how Dave Green, executive director of the Wheat Quality Council, characterized the yields in the snow-free fields.
What they saw west of Oakley is a lot of fields still under snow. Underneath that snow they found 18- to 24-inch-tall wheat stalks weighed down into thick mats of green. The plants are still alive, but whether they will produce grain is a big question, Green said.
The hope, he said, is that in another week or two the plants will recover, stand back up and keep filling the wheat kernels.
But clearly some will not. The stalks were kinked, which means the heads are essentially dead.
“Nobody had seen a foot of snow on a crop that is ready to head,” Green said. “But I have seen wheat that has been hailed on, and I’ve seen wheat that’s been lodged on the ground by a powerful thunderstorm. Both look the same.
“If it’s the thunderstorm-type damage, it may pop back up. But if it’s more like the hail damage, it’s irreversible and it will look worse and worse.”
Justin Gilpin, president of the Kansas Wheat Commission, is on the tour. He spoke Wednesday to a farmer near Leoti, who said he thought in a best-case scenario he would get half of a normal crop this year.
He spoke to another farmer, farther south, in Stanton County.
“He thought there was a zero to 20 percent chance of a crop,” Gilpin said.
Other problems encountered: evidence of April 22-23 and April 27 freezes; diseases, such as stripe rustfreezes, and aphids brought on by near record rains in April and continuing into May.
Dan O’Brien, an agricultural extension service economist based in Colby, said farmers in Kansas were already in tough financial straits, living on borrowed money because of low crop prices. The wheat crop was already likely going to sell for less than it cost to produce.
And now this.
He said a serious crop failure won’t drive western Kansas farmers out of business. In fact, because of all the moisture in normally dry western Kansas, some farmers may now have the option of plowing up their ruined wheat field and planting grain sorghum, corn or even sunflowers or soybeans.
But the bad wheat harvest raises the stakes.
“It’s not a fatal hammer blow by itself,” O’Brien said. “But it does heighten how much we will depend on the fall harvest, and the livestock.”