Crops in 'holding pattern'

The bountiful fall harvest projected for Kansas is still a go.

But a combination of factors has an inordinate amount of the crops still in the fields for this time of the year. And that has farmers and others in the agricultural industry around the state nervous.

"It's been an interesting fall," Sedgwick County farmer Greg Rau said Friday. "There will be a freeze one of these nights and that will be the end of it."

With the exceptions of south-central and far southeast Kansas, much of the state has already had a freeze, according to the National Weather Service in Wichita.

And the forecast calls for the Wichita area to have overnight sub-freezing temperatures on Thursday.

But the threat of that freeze isn't the only issue. After all, the average date of the first freeze for Wichita is Oct. 28.

The problem has been the delay in getting the crops out of the field. Late planting, soggy fields and cool summer and fall weather that slowed maturity have combined to push back the harvest.

"Basically, we're in a holding pattern," said Jeanne Falk, a crop and soil specialist for Kansas State University's Extension Service based in Colby.

Going into the week, only 10 percent of the milo has been harvested, far short of the five-year average of 36 percent for this time of the year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Only 44 percent of the corn has been harvested. The five-year average is 74 percent.

As for soybeans, 42 percent have been harvested, 15 percentage points short of the five-year average.

But those are only averages for a state that has a wide range of variables in terms of weather, when crops are planted and maturity rates.

For instance, Harvey County extension agent Jonie James said normally all of the corn and soybeans are harvested in her area by this time of the year.

But she said only half of the soybeans are out of the field. Most of the corn has been harvested, though.

"We need two weeks of no moisture," James said. "That would help."

In Barton County, extension agent Rick Snell said 75 percent of his area's soybeans were harvested and corn is "surprisingly behind" with 45 percent in the bin.

"In Kansas, every fall is unusual," Snell said. "This year is quite unusual. It's been so cool after the cool summer that crop maturity is behind schedule."

Rau said he hasn't cut any of his milo.

"You can start to have field loss with this kind of weather," he said. "Milo isn't as tough as corn."

Nor are soybeans. If wet fields prevent them from being harvested when they're ripe, the pods can crack open and spill the beans on the ground.

Huge harvests have been projected for the state. The USDA's latest forecast has pegged Kansas to reap 561.2 million bushels of corn and 146 million bushels of soybeans. Both would be state records.

The milo is expected to have a record yield of 83 bushels per acre.

There's no consensus on how the delay will affect the quantity and quality of the fall harvest.

"We're not seeing major impacts yet," said Jerre White, executive director of the state's grower associations for corn and milo. "We haven't seen any deterioration of quality concerns for end users."

Kraig Roozenboom, a crop specialist for corn, milo and soybeans for K-State, said he's trying to balance the situation between "typical farmer pessimism" and what really could happen.

"People are concerned about the ability of the (crops) to dry down," he said. "We're not in the midst of a crisis, but there's potential for a problem."

The grain has to be adequately dried before it is stored or it will rot.

Lack of sunshine has kept much of the grain from drying in the field. So farmers may have the extra expense of drying the grains, particularly if they have to use blowers fueled by natural gas, White said.

Although the northwest's fields are soaked after Wednesday's snow of up to 3 inches followed rain, Falk said the quality of crops in her area should be good.

"We've had all the right conditions to have a nice crop," she said. "Now if we can get the crop out of the field...."

Garden Plain Co-op manager Terry Kohler said, "If we could get three to four days of sunshine, it would be crazy around here. It's been a wonderful summer, but we haven't had the heat to bring the maturing on."

In Barton County, extension agent Rick Snell said 75 percent of his area's soybeans have been harvested and corn is "surprisingly behind" with 45 percent in the bin.

"Milo is the crop where nothing's been done," he said.

The delayed harvest has tied up the fields and pushed back fall wheat planting for some farmers.

"People are getting nervous," said Harvey County's James. "If they want crop insurance, the wheat has to be planted around the first week of November (for this area)."

At this point, Kohler said a freeze may be the best thing for soybeans and milo because normal weather isn't going to spur much more maturity.

"If we had a freeze, at least that would cut the plant off," he said. "My thought is if you get a freeze now, you cut your losses and at least harvest something out of it.

"You can't go on forever. One of these days we're going to look like northwest Kansas with snow on the ground."