For wheat producers, the fall and early winter weather has not been what they had hoped.
McPherson County is still about 12 inches below normal precipitation levels, according to Kansas State climatology data. And an unusually sunny November and December are causing the plants to use whatever moisture they have left.
The result has been less growth in the fields and no tillering, which is important for growth before winter dormancy.
“They're concerned,” Jonie James, McPherson County K-State Research and Extension Agent, said of local farmers. “They know they need that moisture. They've got a lot of winter to go yet.”
Later planted wheat is especially under concern since it hasn't had as long to establish a root system that will help it survive winter kill. This can only be evaluated by digging up the plant, but James said she also has seen dry spots in many fields.
“The potential looks good if we have the moisture to maintain it,” she said.
James said it would be ideal to get at least a quarter-inch rain, then a gradual decline into consistent freezing temperatures to lock it in. Then come March, the wheat could use two to three inch rains every week to catch up from a two-year drought.
“Spring will really be what people are watching to see what crops they'll have (in fields),” she said.
If the forecasts continue to be cloudless, James expects some to react by changing their crop rotations, streamline their inputs and basing their decisions on which crops give the best insurance benefits. In many ways, the approach would be survive rather than prosper.
Delbert Schrag, who sells seed wheat around McPherson County, said he has already noticed producers planting more wheat in recent years, replacing moisture-needy corn and soybean crops. According to Kansas Agricultural Statistics, wheat production went up 38 percent from 2011. One even ordered more because the field the farmer planted was looking thin.
"When it's all said and done, I think producers in this area are still confident in their wheat crops," he said.
Although they are still planting it, their confidence could use some encouragement. Frank Anderson of rural McPherson said his fields are in desperate need of moisture.
“It looks like it's starting to go backward on a few fields,” he said. “It looks like there's less wheat in these fields every day.”
Although James and Anderson both agree McPherson County is better off than some areas of the state and greater Midwest, moisture is still a concern.
“Hopefully it's not going to be an insurance settlement again, but it wouldn't surprise me,” Anderson said. “We're not in the dust bowl because of the different farming methods, but we would be if we didn't have them. It remains to be seen what we're going to have as a wheat crop in 2013. We'll know when we have the combines running (in summer), if we have them running.”
James said there is still hope for that time.
“Wheat is one of those crops that can rebound in spring," James said. “It can survive many things before it truly dies. You can think it's almost gone and the right conditions come in and it compensates.
“I think we have some good wheat compared to other places, but it's not without concerns. It will all depend on the weather, like it does every year.”