In south-central Kansas, wheat's quality is better than expected

The phrase "better than expected" is getting used a lot these days in assessing the Kansas' wheat harvest.

It's been a tough year, with bitter cold in the winter and a very dry spring, plus hail and blistering heat in the last month.

At least in south-central Kansas, the early grim estimates by many farmers and agriculture experts proved too pessimistic, although the overall local harvest is still expected to come in below normal.

"It's not anywhere near the average, but it's not near as bad as we thought it was going to be," said Steve Shaver, general manager of Andale Farmers Co-op.

Terry Kohler, manager at Garden Plain Co-op, took in 3.3 million bushels of wheat, which is about 78 percent of the co-op's five-year average.

"Considering what was expected, well take it," he said.

Statewide, the harvest is 60 to 65 percent complete.

The western Kansas crop is still generally dismal because of the drought, said Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast for the Kansas wheat harvest is for 261 million bushels and 34 bushels per acre, he said.

Gilpin said he thought the total acreage would dip from those estimates because many western Kansas farmers gave up on their fields — removing 15 to 20 percent of the state's usual wheat acreage — which actually serves to drive up the statewide yield.

"If they ran their combines over those fields, I'd probably be getting a lot more calls about 'I'm getting only two or three bushels,' " Gilpin said.

One of the big keys for success in drought-stressed areas was planting in fields that had been empty for several months, called single cropping, rather than planting wheat immediately after harvesting corn or other crops, called double-cropping.

Because of the drought, double-cropped fields had too little subsoil moisture left to foster a dense, healthy wheat crop.

"Some of the double-crop didn't do so well, but the full season wheat performed nicely," said Jeff Winter, a farmer near Mount Hope.

The variation in yields also depended on whether a particular rain storm passed over a particular field this spring.

Winter estimated his yields ranged from the teens to high 50s in bushels per acre.

Sedgwick County Extension Agent Gary Cramer said this crop has left him baffled. It's typical for high yields to coincide with low protein levels, and for very hot days to lower test weights.

But Sedgwick County has had reasonably high yields, high test weights of 60 to 62 pounds per bushel, and high protein levels of around 13.5 percent.

Despite a smaller harvest, the quality is quite good, he said

"You never get all three," Cramer said. "I can't tell you how that happened."