Drought taking toll on Kansas wheat, hay crops

ANDALE — Kent Winter plucks a stalk of wheat and bends it to expose the leaves, which are brownish, papery and curled into a tube.

"That's the lack of moisture," he said.

He figures that the field of non-irrigated, double-crop wheat behind his house is a goner. He'll probably harvest it as animal fodder after the insurance man pays him for his loss.

The alfalfa in the next field could still be worth something if it rains heavily in the coming weeks. There's no insurance on the alfalfa.

"The dryland alfalfa is a disaster," he said, gazing out over the too-short plants.

Winter said he's never seen a drought this severe in the 27 years since he's run the farm full time.

Sedgwick County farmers aren't experiencing quite the blistering dustbowl-like conditions of western Kansas, but it's still dry in enough to make this a poor year for wheat and hay.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting that winter wheat production in south-central Kansas will be down more than 20 percent from 2010.

In south-central Kansas, only about a quarter of the acreage has adequate moisture, as of May 1, according to the USDA.

In southwest Kansas, which the state and federal governments have declared disaster areas, just 5 percent of the land has adequate moisture. The crop is expected to be just half of last year's total.

On the other hand, the eastern third of Kansas, which grows the least amount of the state's wheat, hasn't felt the drought at all and expects its crop to be up from last year.

Let it rain

There may be good news coming for Winter and other central Kansas farmers.

The forecast for south-central Kansas calls for three to four inches of rain over the next 10 days, said Mike Smith of WeatherData.

The weather formation that has caused the dry conditions since last year, the North American Oscillation, has just moved farther north, allowing low pressure to develop in the nation's Southwest.

Smith said that indications for the rest of May are for at least normal rainfall. Beyond that, he said, is impossible to forecast with any precision.

In western Kansas, Smith said, the 10-day forecast calls for two inches of rain.

Economic impact

High wheat prices soothe much of the pain of a poor harvest.

Wheat is now selling in the neighborhood of $8 a bushel, about twice as high as this time in 2010. Kansas State University agricultural economist Kevin Dhuyvetter estimated that the value of the state's harvest will still be one of the highest in the past decade, worth more than $2 billion, based on the USDA's latest harvest estimates.

And even those whose crop was largely wiped out won't be ruined financially. Farmers typically insure themselves to the point where, even if the harvest is a bust, they can at least recover their costs.

In many cases, the insurance is structured to pay the difference between the farmer's average yield and what the farmer actually got that year. That would help for those who have a total or near total loss. But with high prices, a farmer can have a lousy harvest and still beat the insurance payout.

"Sure 50 bushels an acre would be great," Dhuyvetter said, "but 35 bushels an acre will work out, too."

After the wheat

The corn has been planted and needs moisture — soon — to prosper.

But grain sorghum and soybeans don't have to be planted yet, and some farmers are waiting to see what happens.

"There's not enough moisture to plant beans," said Steve Jacob, who farms 3,500 acres near Bentley. "We need some serious rain."

Heavy rain during the rest of May would free them up to start planting. And with crop prices so high, a strong corn, grain sorghum, soybean crop could translate into a decent year financially for farmers — or, at least, help them better offset the rising cost of fertilizer, fuel and other inputs.

Whatever the weather holds, said Gary Cramer, Sedgwick County extension agent, to some extent farmers pretty much have to plant the summer crops because that's their income for next year.

"Farming is a career based on faith," Cramer said. "You have to have faith that things are not going to be so bad that you can't get a crop. But it will guarantee you won't (get a crop) if you don't put anything in the ground."