The wheat harvest could start this weekend in Kansas, but its outcome is more clouded than last year’s record crop.
There has been a hefty catalog of woe this season: winter drought followed by a spring deluge, a blizzard, a freeze, hail and plant disease afflicting different parts of the state.
Even so, some experts now are predicting an average harvest, which would be better than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s May projection of a 38 percent drop from 2016.
But that projection was taken on May 1, when parts of western Kansas still lay under snow from a freak late spring blizzard. Many reports say it appears that the wheat in those counties is coming back better than originally thought.
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A new projection by the USDA will be made on Thursday.
OK Coop Grain in Kiowa is traditionally the first place in the state to see trucks roll in.
General manager Steve Inslee said his crew has spent the past few weeks moving out last year’s grain – many farmers held ownership of it in hopes of higher prices – and readying the elevator for the coming waves of grain. He said it’s always hard to know how much is coming.
“Nobody knows for sure,” he said of the amount. “But the wheat looks way better than it did three months ago.
“Wheat is an amazing crop in the way it can rebound. We have some fields that look as good as last year.”
Romulo Lollato, an assistant professor at Kansas State University, has been watching the developing crop closely.
He ticked off the problems.
▪ The blizzard in western Kansas on April 30 brought up to 2 feet of snow across a couple of dozen far western Kansas counties. The southwestern counties suffered worse because the wheat was further along, Lollato said, but as far as the widespread damage, “it’s not as bad we originally anticipated.”
▪ Wheat streak mosaic has been seen, again largely in western Kansas. It’s a viral disease spread by the wheat curl mite, which lives on wheat stalks that grow wild and then spread to newly emerging fields as far away as a few miles. The disease compromises the plant’s development, which cuts yields.
“Some fields are completely abandoned because of the mosaic,” Lollato said.
▪ Too much rain in central Kansas has left many fields waterlogged. There is some freeze damage in north-central counties. And some plants are experiencing a nitrogen shortage because the previous harvest was so good it drained the soil and because farmers chose not to use as much fertilizer to save money.
Even so, Lollato said, he is cautiously optimistic Kansas could have an above-average yield if the weather remains cool and damp in western Kansas.
Or, he said, it might not. It’s still hard to tell because of the many factors affecting different parts of the state.
“I think it is completely possible that we would have just an average harvest,” he said. “When we add all of this up, it might really hurt us.”
The real problem
But the biggest problem for wheat farmers – and the state economy – continues to be low prices, caused by generous supplies of wheat worldwide. The price of wheat on Wednesday was $4.35 a bushel on the futures market or $3.65 a bushel cash at the co-op in Garden Plain.
That’s not the lowest price of the decade, but it’s close.
The impact has been powerful. Despite producing mountains of wheat in 2016 – so much that it piled up outside elevators across the state – low prices meant that what farmers received for it tied for the worst in a decade, at $1.5 billion, according to the USDA.
Farmers reacted to low prices last fall by switching from planting wheat to soybeans and corn, which have better margins. In Kansas, farmers planted a million fewer wheat acres for the 2017 harvest, down about 12 percent from the previous year.
With plantings down and yields down because of weather issues, the amount of this year’s harvest will almost certainly be significantly less than 2016 – and, unless prices rebound significantly, the amount earned by the wheat crop will be less, potentially by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Farmers may come out ahead if prices and harvests for corn and soybeans are strong in the fall.
This comes at a difficult time for Kansas farmers. Several years of low prices, particularly in wheat and cattle, are increasing their economic distress, particularly those in western Kansas.
Brian Linin, a wheat farmer near Goodland, actually came through the blizzard pretty well – his farm sits 20 miles from where the heavier bands of snow fell – but he experienced some hail and wheat streak mosaic.
He said his wheat crop will fall below average in yield, but what really hurts is the price.
He expects to lose money on his wheat this year.
“I think it’s going to be pretty tough,” he said. “It’s more a mode of not losing very much.”