Wheat tour yielded rough ride

An expected gut punch for many High Plains hard red winter wheat producers was realized during the recently concluded Wheat Quality Tour.

The Wheat Quality Tour estimated the Kansas wheat harvest at 178 million bushels and 30 bushels per acre. The totals come from a consensus following three days of scouting fields and calculating estimates. A year ago, the tour estimated about 261 million bushels. The National Agricultural Statistics Service on May 1 estimated a Kansas crop of 191 million bushels with a yield of 29 bushels per acre and abandonment at 18.5%, according to Kansas Wheat.

Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at Kansas Wheat, said this likely be the lowest producing year since 1957, which also occurred during a widespread drought.

Gary Millershaski, Lakin, the chairman of Kansas Wheat Commission, knew that this crop was going to be difficult. In December he noted that without ample snow cover and timely spring rains in western Kansas it faced long odds. Neither materialized.

He has gone on the tour for the past 10 years and he noted the first day of the three-day tour was the worst he had ever experienced. He left from Manhattan and traveled the northern corridor that included stops at Chapman, Solomon, north of Salina. There he saw some fields that showed 40 bushels per acre but then he headed to Beloit and westward along U.S. Highway 24. He noted fields in Mitchell and Osborne counties “looked terrible” before going to Hays where he could not make a case for the potential of 20 bushels per acre.

The second day included stops in Colby, Goodland and south to Syracuse. He could see pockets where yields could be 30 to 35 bushels south of Sharon Springs and around Tribune but there were also a lot of fields that were spotty. When he got within 15 miles of Syracuse he said from there to Dodge City that nearly all the non-irrigated wheat was not worth counting.

He visited with his crop insurance agent in Lakin who had sold policies to cover 40,000 acres and as of May 17 about 60% had been zeroed out and the agent thinks about 80% will be zeroed out once all the claims are processed.

In northern Kearny County where a few timely showers fell last October there were fields where a stand was established, Millershaski said. However, some wheat never emerged even after a late January snow or when rain fell about three to four weeks ago.

On his farm he will abandon about 90% of his wheat and likely harvest about 450 acres.

“As we got east of Dodge City, we saw some wheat that it would at least pay to cut,” Millershaski said.

His second day he figured yield potentials at about 23 bushels per acre.

“We did not count anything that looked like it should be zeroed out. That will go into a column of abandonment,” he said.

From Wichita to Manhattan, he did see some good wheat particularly in Marion and McPherson counties.

“I can breathe a lot better if we can get over 300 million (bushels) for a cash crop,” Millershaski said in reflecting upon an expected sub-180-million-bushel wheat crop.

Harries said the numbers were not unexpected. The group he was with had consensus of 28% abandonment but also included much higher abandonment in southwest Kansas where rates could be as high as 60%.

Recent rains in extreme northwest Kansas may help growers to fill kernels in the small heads, Harries said. In a few other areas it may push a few more bushels per acre.

“Between now and harvest the odds of the crop getting any bigger are less than the crop getting smaller,” Harries said.

Other neighboring states have indicated difficult growing conditions, according to Kansas Wheat.

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Mike Schulte from Oklahoma Wheat Commission reported that the state’s production estimate numbers, presented at the Oklahoma Grain Feed Association, were 49.9 million bushels, with about 2.2 million acres of wheat harvested out of 4.6 million acres planted with an estimated yield of 23 bushels per acre.

Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, reported that the entire state of Nebraska received about 1 inch or more of rain last week. Statewide yield is estimated at 29.6 bushels per acre, down from an average of 48 bushels per acre. Planted acres are 1.1 million, and Schaneman said they expect 90% of the acres to be harvested.

Brad Erker, executive director of Colorado Wheat, submitted a written report. The May 1 NASS report estimated 49.5 million bushels and a 30-bushel yield. Erker’s report estimates this to be slightly higher at 32-bushel yield and 54 million bushels, due to the rainfall the second week of May. 

What’s ahead

Millershaski said he and other producers are going to weigh their options on what to do with abandoned acres.

“I have some acres that it’s going to be better for me to just leave it and go to wheat this fall,” he said.

On May 19 he reported some fields the previous night had received about an inch to an inch and a half of rain and he had received rains in the month prior but his hesitancy is grounded on the fact that he had only received 6 to 8 inches of moisture the previous 16 to 17 months.

Harries said many producers are going to have to take a wait-and-see approach on whether or not to plant a spring crop. Sorghum is often discussed but he said the culmination of a two-year drought has meant there is minimal subsoil moisture.

“Frankly what we heard was it’s 50-50. Some guys are going to leave it to fallow this summer and try to recharge the subsoil moisture,” he said. “Then some will say they will go back in with some milo. But that depends on how much more it rains.”

Millershaski said this year’s poor crop will impact his decisions. He knows that insurance will help cushion the cost of expenses, but he noted, that like consumers who see the effects of inflation at the grocery store, producers are in the same boat for not only their food but other farm expenses.

Guy Allen, senior agricultural economist at the IGP Institute at Kansas State University, said United States farmers are facing multiple headwinds. A strong dollar is still strong and that hurts export opportunities.

“Every time the Fed raises interest rates it makes our currency more expensive relative to a number of other countries,” he said. “That’s why we are seeing this pushback. We’re making problems not just for ourselves but everybody globally.”

Allen said it reminds him some of the late 1970s and early 1980s when high inflation drove up land values and expenses and then to tamp down inflation interest rates were raised significantly and that made for a tough climate on the farm for much of the 1980s.

Allen’s advice for growers was to adjust their business plans to conserve cash, minimize risk and reduce how much they are leveraged. The global markets, which farmers depend on, are filled with a lot of uncertainty.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].