As this year’s winter wheat crop enters the critical final stages, weather patterns very similar to the previous year have put some farmers in line to harvest another bin-busting haul, while others have already been forced to throw in the towel.
Last year’s yields were the biggest some had seen in a lifetime of farming, resulting in large supplies that are still weighing on the market. But recent weather threats have given prices a boost.
On the heels of a widespread spring storm, packing snow and blizzard-force winds, the annual hard winter wheat tour, organized by the Wheat Quality Council, fanned out across fields in Kansas and surrounding states this week to scrutinize the crop’s potential. The tour began Monday evening and ended Thursday in Manhattan, Kansas, with updates posted on Facebook and Twitter along the way.
The U.S. agriculture department will issue its own estimate on May 10.
So far the weather patterns, though somewhat unusual overall, track closely with those of the previous year. It began with a very dry and mild winter followed by an early spring, the return of ample moisture and a welcome moderation in temperatures going into late April and early May.
In both cases, exceptionally warm temps in February got the crop off to a quick start, pushing it two to three weeks ahead of normal development in most areas but also making it more vulnerable to a late freeze.
A lot of wheat farmers were feeling optimistic prior to the latest storm.
Jon Rich, a wheat breeder for AgriPro who traveled through Central Kansas and Northwest Oklahoma recently, was enthusiastic about the crop’s potential, especially with cooler weather arriving during the critical grain fill period after wheat heads emerge.
“The wheat looks pretty good everywhere I’ve been. Some areas will compete with the record yields we had last year,” said Rich, who is based at the company’s research farm near Junction City, Kansas. “Wheat loves this cooler weather, as long as it doesn’t get below freezing.”
Brian Brooks, the president of the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers, who farms near Walsh, was also upbeat.
“Whatever wheat survived the winter has some pretty high potential in some places,” he said.
Still, he and other scouts in Colorado estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the wheat in the state has already been released by insurance adjusters.
Joe Westhoff, formerly a seed and traits specialist with the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation and now a crop insurance adjuster and consultant working in the Greeley, Colorado area, said one difference between this year’s crop and last is that the previous year farmers had uniformly excellent fall stands. By contrast, only about 70 percent of the crop emerged last fall due to exceptionally dry conditions. The rest of it has either been “disastered out” or is still playing catch-up.
“Obviously we won’t see the record crop we saw last year, but if I had to guess, I would say we’ll be pretty close to the average number of around 70 million bushels statewide,” he said.
He did expect some farmers to have yields on par with last year’s records.
“Some of the stuff in my area (around Wiggins) looks pretty darn nice,” he said.
The past two weekends, temperatures dove down low enough to raise concerns of possible freeze damage across a large swath of Kansas running from southwest to north central parts of the state.
K-State Extension reported that the recent spring blizzard over the state’s western third overlaps with an area responsible for 40 percent of the total crop. The combination of extended low temps and high winds left behind widespread potential for yield loss from stem breakage or damage to emerging heads. Several southwest Kansas counties were already in the flowering stage, making wheat there particularly vulnerable. It typically takes a week or two to fully assess the damage.
“The question is not whether we will see damage but rather how much damage we will see,” said A.J. Foster, area extension agronomist based at Garden City, Kansas. “There will be some severe damage, but we’ll have to determine that on a field-by-field basis.”
The damaging cold had less of a bite going east. According to extension personnel in Clark County, temperatures there bottomed out just above the freezing mark.
Rich, the AgriPro breeder, said the benefit of the cooler temps overall could help make up for some cold injury, except in cases where damage was severe. The recent damp conditions could also encourage continued development of foliar diseases like stripe rust.
Westhoff said he believes one of the factors that helped push yields to record levels last year was intensive management. Heavy infestations of leaf rust in 2015 convinced farmers of the necessity of monitoring fields and applying fungicides in a timely manner. More growers also began using preventive fungicides with their seed treatments.
With wheat prices so low, it’s not clear whether farmers will continue that trend.
“Farmers who might be warranted in spraying, with the economics we’ve got right now, they may be re-examining that,” Brooks said.
In his area, however, good management practices have reduced disease pressure. Controlling volunteer wheat has helped prevent viral diseases like wheat streak mosaic, a problem that has plagued some areas of Western Kansas. Brown wheat mites and cutworms have been minimal so far in southeast Colorado, Brooks said.
Like last year, an active weather pattern could intensify the threat of hail between now and harvest. The recent parade of storms is being attributed to a weak El Nino weather pattern, which could make it harder to get the corn crop in and create wet conditions at wheat harvest time, but otherwise bodes well for the High Plains.
“We’ve had over four inches of rain in the past month. It looks beautiful,” Brooks said. “You’ll see a lot of corn planters running in our area in the next couple of weeks.”
In addition to this week’s tour, upcoming variety trial field days will give farmers the chance to learn more about crop conditions.
Wheat tours have already started in Oklahoma. Kansas State University released a schedule of variety plot tours that begins May 15 and runs through June 1. Colorado State University’s test plot tours are scheduled from June 8 through June 14.