Agriculture

Kansas farmers are harvesting wheat — and expecting a lot less of it this year

Drone views of wheat harvest in Sumner County

Jeff Hatfield cuts wheat near Belle Plaine, Kansas.
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Jeff Hatfield cuts wheat near Belle Plaine, Kansas.

Hot, dry weather this spring means Kansas farmers expect to harvest less wheat this year.

The harvest now underway is expected to average about 37 bushels an acre, down from 48 last year. Those numbers, which come from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, estimate a total yield of 270.1 million bushels of Kansas wheat this year, down 19 percent from last year.

That drop is substantial, given the billion-plus dollars the crop brings in for the Wheat State each year. Last year, Kansas wheat generated $1.3 billion for the Kansas economy, following a gradual decline since 2012, when it generated $2.9 billion for the state economy.

Wheat should ideally be about waist-high this late in the season, but most of the wheat across the state has been only knee-high, making harvesting difficult, said Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant at Kansas Wheat, a partnership between the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers.

"It’s not going to be a bin-buster by any means," Hildebrand said. "Wheat has nine lives, so it’ll still produce something in most cases, but it’s not going to be abundant."

This year, almost half of the state's wheat crop is in poor to very poor condition, according to a Monday report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The service reported that 15 percent of winter wheat was in very poor condition, 32 percent was in poor condition, 37 percent in fair condition, 15 percent in good condition, and only 1 percent in excellent condition.

An early May report from the Wheat Quality Council, which tours and tests several hundred fields across the region, estimated 2018 Kansas wheat production at 243.3 million bushels, or a 27 percent reduction from 2017 and the lowest yield since 1989. The council also came up with an expected yield of 37 bushels per acre, but in contrast with the government's estimate, it expects larger deterioration in the crop.

Dave Green, executive vice president for the council, said the council is proud of its estimate but that the government's estimate of 270.1 million bushels is also possible. He said many of the areas they visited during their tour in early May, particularly the northwest and south central parts of the state, are in better shape.

Wheat farmer Jeff Hatfield started harvesting his fields earlier this week. He said he'd be fortunate if he had an average harvest, but that he's afraid his harvest will be lower than average.

"It’s somewhat hard to tell until you actually get out there and start harvesting," Hatfield said. "The wheat looks better than it actually is, because we’ve been so dry. With this hot weather we’ve had these past three or four weeks, when the wheat’s trying to fill out, it hasn’t been what you’d like to see."

Facing prices driven down by an abundance of wheat in world markets, Kansas farmers have also taken their chances with other crops that might have better returns per acre, resulting in an overall decrease in the amount of wheat acres planted over the past decade. Planted acres this year did not get very much rain.

Late spring freezes also stunted wheat growth, although with the lack of moisture, disease hasn't really played as much of a role this year.

Those conditions have meant that wheat harvesting has started early across all of Kansas. The harvest typically starts at about mid-June south of Wichita and gradually spreads to the north. This year, Hildebrand said, it seems like "everywhere is harvesting all at once."

"It seems like we went directly from winter into summer, and that’s not great for wheat," Hildebrand said. "Wheat likes to have sort of a cool, wet spring in order to fill up with some grain. The fact that wheat is ready to be cut in north central Kansas isn’t a good sign for how yields will be. It went straight from 30- or 40-degree weather to 90s, and that’s really stressed the wheat out."

Kansas Wheat's Tuesday report said farmers across Kansas have seen lower-than-average yields across the state, with averages of 25 bushels per acre in Barber and Harper counties. Wheat producers in Sumner County reported averages of 35 bushels per acre, with some parts seeing averages in the low 40s — much closer to the 10-year average of 41.2 bushels.

Around Halstead, averages ranged between 25 and 50 bushels per acre, with the wide range thought to be due to spotty rain and fertilizer use.

As the harvest has gotten underway, the Kansas Highway Patrol urged drivers to watch for farm equipment on the roads and highways. Most farm equipment only travels between 15 and 25 mph and is often wider than a traffic lane, so drivers should give farm equipment additional space and precaution.

For Hatfield, the low wheat prices and expected yields are part of everyday life. He said there's not much he can do but to continue farming and hope for the best.

"You just have to be as efficient as you can, and hope that you have something to sell," he said. "The markets are out of your hands, so you just have to try to manage the risk as much as you can. It's always that way in agriculture."

"I’m always hopeful — you have to be," Hatfield continued. "I don’t have any anxiety on the wheat. I just hope to get it all cut, and get everybody out safe and sound. We’ll get some rains and have a good corn and bean crop."

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