KAWG members discuss how winter weather, high fertilizer prices may affect Kansas wheat harvest

As the wheat crop is tucked into dormancy like a hibernating bear, Kansas farmers are making tough choices about topdressing during a dry winter with escalating fertilizer prices.

Kansas wheat farmers reported during a recent board meeting of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers that wheat fields across Kansas were generally planted into sufficient moisture conditions and went into winter with decent stands. But more moisture will be needed over the winter and into the spring to kickstart a crop emerging from dormancy and maintain growth.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Kansas topsoil moisture supplies as of Jan. 23—ahead of this week’s winter weather—were 77% very short to short and 23% adequate to surplus. Subsoil moisture supplies were 31% very short, 41% short and 28% adequate. In the same report, the Kansas winter wheat crop was rated at 30% good to excellent, 39% fair and 31% very poor to poor. The impact of recent snowfall will be reflected in the next crop progress and condition report, scheduled for Feb. 22.

Justin Knopf, KAWG president and wheat farmer in central Kansas, reiterated while it’s generally an OK time of year for wheat to be dry due to dormancy, temperature fluctuations and dry soil conditions could take a toll on final yields. Kyler Millershaski, KAWG vice president and wheat farmer in southwest Kansas, noted the wheat is looking decent, surprising considering the dry conditions. December brought 4 to 5 inches of snow, which was needed, but he’s hoping for more to come.

Perhaps more importantly, KAWG members conveyed the difficult decisions producers are currently making with their fertility programs. In a normal year, producers would be starting or preparing to topdress wheat fields with nitrogen. This winter application allows the nitrogen to move into the root zone with precipitation well before jointing begins to be most efficiently utilized by wheat. Having adequate nitrogen available supports spring tillering and helps ensure good yield potential.

This year, however, fertilizer prices have exploded due to international supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a January 2022 report by Texas A&M University’s Agricultural and Food Policy Center, “Based on current spot markets, it appears as though fertilizer prices will increase in excess of 80 percent for the 2022 planting season (relative to 2021).” KAWG members and their neighbors are feeling this cost crunch, reporting many in their areas are putting off normal topdressing applications to wait for moisture.

“While we cannot control the weather and its impact on the wheat crop’s yield potential, it is important to note that Kansas farmers are holding off on fertilizer applications due to high prices and availability of supplies,” said Kansas Wheat CEO Justin Gilpin. “Even with welcome winter snow and — fingers crossed — well-timed spring showers, these decisions could affect the final grain yields and quality of this year’s wheat crop.”

K-State Agronomy is offering resources to Kansas producers on how to adjust their soil fertility programs during record high prices in an upcoming CropTalk webinar series. Topics will cover manure, how to best apply precision ag, adjusting programs to high prices, cover crops and climate. Learn more at https://www.northwest.k-state.edu/events/crop-talk-series.

When fertilizer prices will stabilize or decrease is a difficult question, but KWCH Chief Meteorologist Ross Janssen did offer welcome longer-term predictions for weather patterns during last week’s Kansas Commodity Classic. Janssen predicted shifting weather patterns could bring near to below normal temperatures and wetter than normal moisture conditions to the western two-thirds of Kansas in the next three months. Overall, he predicted while winter will continue to drag out, Kansas farmers should see near-normal rainfall this spring and are unlikely to have a major drought this summer or a prolonged heatwave. Both predictions are positive for the Kansas wheat crop as wheat plants emerge out of dormancy this spring and continue their growth cycle until this summer’s harvest.

With a projected 7.3 million acres of wheat planted in Kansas, according to the USDA’s Winter Wheat and Canola Seedings report released on Jan. 12, 2022, Kansas farmers are keeping their eye on the markets and on the sky to make the most of this year’s crop. Keep up with the latest updates on the Kansas wheat crop and issues facing the industry at kswheat.com.