Wheat crop had deck stacked against it from the beginning

A drive down about any county road in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas and the drought conditions become pretty apparent.

Take a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map for any given week in 2023. Then check out the 2022 winter wheat acres planted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. It’s not hard to notice the areas that lie within the severest drought ratings are also the ones with the highest acres of wheat planted.

In southwest Kansas, it’s been extremely dry for many months. John Holman, agronomy professor and cropping systems and forage agronomist at the Kansas State University Southwest Research and Extension Center in Garden City, Kansas, said those conditions were present when the 2023 crop went into the ground last fall.

Much the same, Amanda Easterly, research assistant professor agronomy and horticulture, University of Nebraska in Sidney, Nebraska, said the soil was very dry at planting in her area, but producers were lucky enough to get wheat planted in time, then emerged and growing with some small timely rains.

“For several places where we have wheat variety trials, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the wheat came up despite the severe drought effects,” she said.

Easterly said in Nebraska the wheat conditions at the end of April varied widely. Some areas had a decent stand with very little winter kill, while others had poor emergence and might have experienced effects from the cold temperatures and high winds in December.

Holman said in western Kansas spring conditions have proved challenging too.

“There has been some freeze injury, but this impact on yield is minor compared to the drought on dryland,” he said. “There could be some yield impact by freeze on irrigated, but I have not seen anything too extreme.”

Easterly is seeing more winterkill than she’d hoped for, particularly being compounded by places that had the poorer initial stand or were subjected more intensely to several days of sub-zero temps with high winds with wind chills.

“In the Nebraska Panhandle, we’ve seen complete winter killing of our winter barley experiments and are starting to see more in our wheat variety trials,” she said. “We’ll be scoring that as we can to see what we can learn about variety differences when it comes to the most extreme conditions that we saw.”

The ongoing drought conditions this spring have been one more stressor to the already stressed crop.

“The spring growth has also been delayed with our cooler than normal spring, and in many places the crop is probably three to four weeks behind normal growth stage,” she said.

For Holman, research on dryland wheat found the yield is largely determined by the rainfall from October to December and from February to May. Irrigated wheat yield was increased by December precipitation.

“Of these six critical months, five have been extremely dry,” he said. “Thus, the damage to the wheat crop has occurred. For the wheat still hanging on, precipitation in May will be helpful.”

At the end of April, many areas in the High Plains region were forecasted to receive some precipitation. Easterly said if the rains come, they will be helpful particularly as the crop starts to grow more actively.

“Hopefully rains can continue through May and further benefit the crop,” she said. “The past couple of days we’ve had chances of rain but they haven’t materialized (in the southern Panhandle). I know for a lot of growers; this is incredibly disheartening.”

The weather forecasters are saying La Nina is gone and weather patterns are transitioning into an El Nino weather pattern, but it will take more time.

“Hopefully it means that if not for this year’s wheat crop, perhaps next year’s will fare better,” Easterly said.

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For Holman, even though the dryland wheat crop yield will be down significantly in southwest Kansas, it’ll still mean something if more timely rains are coming.

“If weather conditions improve, it will still greatly benefit rangeland, forage production, and summer grain crops,” he said.

Easterly said to also work through budgets and business plans, then consult insurance professionals as you start to be able to quantify the loss in this year on fields.

“There may be some fields that are better to cut losses, but for those that do remain, be as aggressive as possible on weed control and monitoring for the diseases we saw last year (wheat streak mosaic virus, barley yellow dwarf virus),” she said. “With the reduced stand and bare spots, I would anticipate weeds will take advantage and compete for the remaining soil moisture and be a challenge at harvest.”

She also said it would also be helpful to watch fertility and match it to your anticipated wheat goals, but not reduce more than necessary.

“The best competitive advantages will help protect remaining yields,” Easterly said. “There is still a chance of freeze in some parts of the High Plains going all the way into mid-May.”

As for harvest, neither Holman nor Easterly was overly enthusiastic about predicting the future.

“Yields will be low and a lot of acres will not be harvested,” Holman said.

Easterly said she wasn’t willing to speculate on yields.

“I’m trying to remain hopeful we catch some timely rains, can show good spring growth, and get to harvest without additional stresses on the crop,” she said. “Depending on how spring warms up from here, we may see a later than normal harvest.”

Timely harvest will be critical in areas with wheat stem sawfly, as lodging before the combine gets to the field could impact stand and vigor, according to Easterly.

Prices and markets

When it comes to wheat prices and what influence, if any, the drought has on them, Dan O’Brien, Kansas State University Extension agricultural economist relies on his agronomic colleagues to update him on the wheat conditions.

“I just think you have to be cautious about wheat prospects in the in the western two-thirds of the state,” he said.

O’Brien said he’s curious to see what Kansas Wheat Tour attendees will find in mid-May, and hopefully by then some moisture will have replenished the subsoil.

O’Brien said when economists “have little hope for production” they get lost in the numbers. For hard red winter wheat, the closer it gets to the final closing dates on the prices, he’ll have a better idea where things lie.

“I think by the time we get to June; the final harvest price estimate will be figured basically for the June closing averages for the July 2023 hard red winter wheat contract,” O’Brien said. “And the questions we have now I think they’ll be pretty well answered by the time we get to June.”

Looking more at a world view, O’Brien said the overall narrative and worry index of the market has gone up and down based on what’s happening with the grains flowing out of Ukraine and Russia.

There are some real distortions going on in that region and it’s affecting what’s happening with trade. And don’t forget about the damage to the production infrastructure in Ukraine.

O’Brien wonders about the imbalances in the grain markets and inventories and what they will be like going forward.

Ukraine was the third or fourth largest exporter of wheat and corn for a number of years, and O’Brien calls them “tangibly damaged” in their production capacity currently.

“I think the big issue is, at this time I think the markets are banking on La Nina going away and El Nino coming on and having sizeable crops this summer and we still have pretty decent prices,” he said. “But markets have shown a pretty noticeable willingness to kind of discount any crop risk at this time.”

He’s unsure if that’s a safe assumption or if it’s realistic. The next 60 to 90 days will tell quite the story when it comes to wheat and other crops that have yet to go in the ground.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].