The Kansas wheat harvest has begun

It’s nearly 95 degrees under the hot Kansas sun, the 30-mph winds blowing wheat dust for miles.

This, however, is wheat harvest weather, and 33-year-old Jake Graber has been in it for nearly four hours.

Graber, of Pretty Prairie, sports shorts and a T-shirt while moonlighting as a truck driver. Back and forth, until well past dark, he would make the same path from the field to the Mid-Kansas Cooperative Castleton branch nearby.

But the hours of solitude is a welcomed rejuvenation from his full-time job as a South Hutchinson police officer.

“It’s a nice little change of pace,” he said, adding he’d be back on the street Wednesday, returning to help in the field on his days off.

The wheat field, he said, “is like a vacation.”

The Kansas wheat harvest has begun — bringing with it is harvest hands from all walks of life who are helping with the annual June rite. For the past four or five years, Graber has been hauling grain for Pretty Prairie farmer Terry Krehbiel.

It’s a stressful time of year. When it’s time to cut, you cut, only stopping if the wheat becomes too tough to cut or Mother Nature brings inclement weather. Sometimes, said Graber, that might mean ending his day around 11 p.m. or midnight.

Krehbiel, a fourth-generation farmer, is used to the Kansas weather and the ever-changing seasons of farming. He put in his first wheat crop at age 16. He turned 60 this year.

This is his 44th harvest, and he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“You work all year for this,” said Krehbiel, who is the fourth-generation on the farm. “This is payday.”

It’s a good harvest so far.

In southern Reno County, this year’s harvest is decent, Krehbiel said. As he circled his combine in the field near Castleton, he estimated it was yielding around 60 bushels an acre. Not all fields have been as good, he said.

“I’d take 60 all day long, but we’ve cut some 45-bushel wheat this year. The bigger yields the better this year with the wheat prices, he said. While prices have come up since last year, to $3.80 a bushel Monday at Castleton, the profit margin is thin.

“If you can hit the 50 to 60 range, there is a little money in it,” he said. “But 40-bushel wheat doesn’t cut it anymore.”

His acreage reflects the slumping prices. He sowed fewer wheat than he has in recent years — a decision he made when prices were still hovering around $3 a bushel.

Krehbiel wasn’t the only one with that mindset. All told, Kansas farmers planted just 7.4 million bushel of wheat last fall — the lowest in more than a century.

“Last summer I was so frustrated and I thought ‘why am I growing this wheat.’ When it got down to $3 an under, it was just a waste of time.”

Harvest started slowly along the Kansas Oklahoma border Tuesday. By the weekend, combines were rolling in from Kiowa, in Barber County, to nearly Salina.

At Anthony Farmers Cooperative based in Anthony, Manager Dan Cashier said crews really got rolling Saturday.

Yields are average, with test weights “right around 60” pounds a bushel - or No. 1-grade wheat.

“I think we have a decent crop out there, but I’m not expecting anything like last year,” said Cashier, of the bumper yields reaped in 2016. “Last year was one out of 20 years - a perfect storm where everything comes together.” Cashier, who has worked for the cooperative for about 35 years, said farmers in his territory also planted less acres to wheat and more ground earmarked for soybeans, as well as canola.

At Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. in Pretty Prairie, employee Jessie Cable said Monday morning that she had weighed 130 truckloads of wheat since Friday.

“We already have outbounds going,” she said of shipping grain out to terminals in Wichita.

Around Garden City - harvest is still several days away. Trevor Hands, with Garden City Co-op, said cooperative officials don’t expect farmers in their territory to begin test cutting until at least Monday of next week.

Here, the wheat has been hit with about every plague imaginable. But other than stand issues from the fall, as well as wheat streak mosaic infestations and kinked stems from a late April snowstorm, “it would probably be really good.”

Wheat yields will most likely be all across the board and “it will be interesting to see what average yields look like,” Hands said.

“You either love it or get out”

Krehbiel has three combines going in the field. Usually he has two grain cart drivers, but this year he is short a hand.

On this day, his son, Cody, is maneuvering between two grain carts, as well as helping to repair a breakdown.

Krehbiel’s wife, Robin, brings meals to the field. His father, Harlan, is 87 and made it out for a round in the combine Saturday. Up until a few years ago, he still helped shuffle machinery around and other jobs.

“He enjoys it, terribly so,” he said.

Krehbiel estimated he has cut about a fourth of his crop. For the next week, he and his small crew will in the field, barring bad weather.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s just part of life. You either love it or get out. There is bad years and then there are good years. And you always are thinking next year is going to be better.”