Clint Reiss of Kismet has taken some of his wheat fields and converted them to cotton fields. He said this is because of the low price of wheat and high price of cotton.
Reiss isn't the only one — other farmers across the state are shifting their wheat fields to other commodities.
Kansas is no longer No. 1 in wheat acreage. For two years, the USDA has reported Kansas is second to North Dakota in acres of wheat planted. Decreasing prices, flooding, hail, oversupply and competition make for a hostile climate for the Kansas wheat farmer. Rather than abandon the crop, other farms are continuing with wheat while they hope more markets open up. Still others are bucking the trend. They are experimenting and getting high yields.
Hard red winter wheat — the wheat grown across most of Kansas — is a mainstay on a large number of farms. Many do not want to abandon this hearty grain. According to Kansas Wheat, in 2019, 1 acre of wheat can feed 15,600 people a day. The 2019 Kansas wheat harvest could produce more than 30 billion loaves of bread.
But wheat rates are slipping. Worldwide stockpiles of this grain are high. This has lowered both the price and the import of wheat.
“Over the last four to five years we’ve seen relatively low wheat prices and persistent declines in acreage,” said Joe Janzen, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
According to Janzen, if this continues, Kansas farmers will shift toward other crops. However, he pointed out, if the price of wheat increases, the farmer will rebound to wheat.
“The Kansas farmer is a very efficient producer of wheat,” Janzen said. “To cover all their costs they (Kansas wheat farmers) need at least $5 a bushel. Current market prices are nowhere close to covering the cost.”
The current rate of a bushel of wheat is hovering at a little more than $4 a bushel. This is a dollar lower than the average break-even point. Sometimes yield can make up for the low price point. Last year, many farmers in Kansas had a good crop.
“The world is consuming 750 million tons of wheat,” said Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat. “There continues to be an expanding growth of wheat.”
Gilpin and others are trying to increase U.S. wheat exports, including increasing exports of hard red and white winter wheat, Kansas’ staple. But other countries, including Russia, are ramping up exports as well.
Beating the odds
Some farmers are beating the odds with wheat crops that are producing high yields.
“They need good land and good management,” Janzen said.
For the past several years, a farm in western Kansas has won several national and state wheat yield awards. Horton Seed Services is centered in Leoti but has wheat fields in Finney, Kearny and Wichita counties.
The Hortons use specific techniques to enhance both yield and protein on their dryland crops. They produce 80% hard red wheat and 20% hard white wheat.
“The biggest thing that a lot of guys skimp on is fertility,” said Alec Horton, a fourth-generation farmer. “They just want to go out, grow wheat, come back and harvest it and hope it’s good. That’s not how a lot of guys grow corn or soybeans.”
Horton said the farmer needs to pick the right variety of seed for the soil and climate and provide proper fertility.
“Find a good dealer that is actually doing strip trials inside your area and go to that dealer who is doing research in your area,” Horton said. “Use a population base. Use seeds per acre and not pounds per acre. Pounds per acre has no consistency — the same variety can vary by 3,000 to 4,000 seeds per pound.”
Horton also said the farmer needs to continue checking their crop and making sure proper fertilization is used. Some crops need more nitrogen than others. Some need sulfur or phosphorus; others do not.
“You need to spend money on inputs,” Horton said. “You have to give it fertility.”