Here we go again

(Journal stock photo.)

In talking with wheat growers from southwest Oklahoma up well into northern Kansas, I’m hearing the same story over and over again. “It’s dry, dry, dry.” 

Here we go again. 

If I didn’t know better, I’d say we slipped back in time and it’s September 2022 all over again when we had slim odds of getting a wheat stand. And it got worse every day you waited. 

This is kind of a big deal because the No. 1 factor affecting yield is getting a stand. It’s said if you can get your wheat up, you’ve got 90 to 95% odds of harvesting something. This is no guarantee that you’ll have great yields, but you’ll at least have something. 

In a “rain-fed” economy, this is something we periodically have to deal with—rains that just don’t come when they’re supposed to. We farmers have devised numerous ways to alter the course that Mother Nature tries to force us down. Here on our farm, one of our primary objectives through the summer fallow period is to protect the topsoil moisture at all costs. 

To do that through the summer fallow period we use a reduced tillage program combining herbicides for weed control with one, two or three deep tillage operations using our 6-foot subsurface blade plow that preserves the crop residues from the previous crop. Research from the 1960s and 1970s on stubble mulch tillage showed that in severe heat and drought the top inch or two of your soil likely will dry out but the next inch or two down will stay semi moist. 

Finally, when you get to the plow pan, you have decent enough moisture to get the wheat up. This past fall we had a failure rate of 1%. On the vast majority of our ground, we had decent stands and had to plow up only 1% of what we planted. 

While it is maybe early for planting wheat, some farmers I’ve talked with are considering other alternatives. Already they don’t have enough topsoil moisture to get their wheat up. And that combined with wheat prices significantly below cost of production is leading them to think about maybe not even planting at all. Plus, many wheat farmers can’t find adequate supplies of seed wheat. And what they can find is expensive. And the weather forecast is equally discouraging. 

Sure, we’ve got a 40 to 50% chance of rain five and six days out. But do you want to go on the operating table with those odds … especially when the trend is solidly going the opposite direction? 

So just exactly where is the weather headed? Bill Turner, meteorologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Dodge City, notes the Climate Prediction Center says over the next three months of September through November, we should look for temperature and precipitation to be “near normal.” 

Turner says there is no winter weather outlook yet, but El Nino is establishing and El Nino winters tend to favor heavier rain and snow across the central and southern Plains, including Kansas. 

But what does Turner really think? “Personally, I have no faith in these long-range predictions. Anything past about 14 days is essentially useless in my opinion. There are just too many variables involved to make an accurate prediction. As an operational meteorologist that has been doing this for 26 years, I think useful predictability ends at about 10 days,” he concludes. 

Vance Ehmke is a Dighton, Kansas, farmer.