Travel anywhere in the Sunflower State and people will tell you it’s dry. It’s so dry the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared last week that all but one of the 105 Kansas counties is in a drought disaster. This clears the way for farmers and ranchers to seek low-interest emergency loans.
While many areas of the state have been blessed with eight to 10 inches of snow, the winter wheat crop still needs moisture. Limited moisture in most areas of Kansas caused the winter wheat condition to decline through December.
As of the first of the year, 9 percent of the crop was rated very poor, 22 percent poor, 45 percent fair, 23 percent good and 1 percent excellent, according to Kansas Ag Statistics.
Estimates place the number of wheat acres that did not germinate between 5-10 percent. Some folks believe it may be less than 2 percent; however, those acres will almost certainly produce approximately 65 percent of a normal yield. And nearly every Kansas farmer knows of someone who has a field that didn’t come up.
Many parts of the state received a quarter to half inch of rain Jan. 10. Any moisture in January is considered a bonus.
Significant rainfalls essential for the wellbeing of winter wheat in Kansas generally fall in February and March. Rain or snow before or after this two-month period does not impact wheat as much.
“We can talk about how dry it is now, but what if we receive a foot of snow the beginning of February?” asks Mark Nelson, Kansas Farm Bureau commodities director. “And let’s say this snow just sits on this wheat crop across the state for the next two months. Then March is nice and we receive April showers. All this wheat that has been dry up to this point – well it could make 60, 70, 80 bushels per acre next harvest.”
And those farmers whose crop didn’t come up?
Their wheat harvest may make 50 bushels per acre and they’ll say, “Good God. I didn’t know she’d do this.”
On the flip side, if it remains dry, Kansas farmers could harvest a 270 million bushel wheat crop, Nelson says. Right now, with average yields, Kansas is looking at the potential for a 355 million bushel crop.
In January most wheat growers remain lodged in a kind of limbo. They’re busy planning, marketing and oftentimes worrying about the lack of moisture on their wheat crop. And rightly so. The long-range forecast is dry through February and March.
“No moisture in February and March could add up to that 100 million bushel shortfall I was talking about,” Nelson says. “There’s no subsoil moisture anywhere in Kansas.”
Still, it’s too early to say how the 2013 wheat crop will pan out. Harvest is nearly six months in the future.
In Kansas, it’s often said the wheat crop lives from hand to mouth. It’s hanging in there right now. If it receives a little more rain and some snow for cover protection it could make a good crop yet.
“We can chicken scratch along, and if everybody grows a bunch of 35-40 bushel wheat and we end up with 335 million bushels across the state next harvest, this may be disappointing but it’s far from a disaster,” Nelson says. “If this scenario plays out, what I’m worried to death about are the row crops we plant in spring. Where will they find the moisture?”
Nelson isn’t alone; more than one irrigator I’ve spoken to this winter is concerned with this possibility. Their biggest worry during this relatively slow time in January is the fear that February and March will not provide needed moisture.
“The Kansas wheat crop will continue to mosey along,” Nelson says. “It’s too early to worry too much about this crop. Barring weather disasters, the wheat crop has a relatively good shot. We’re behind the 8-ball however, when we look to the future and our corn, milo and soybeans this spring if it remains dry.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.