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Update: Young Plains wheat hurting for rain

Jeff Caldwell 10/19/2010 @ 2:21pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The winter wheat crop is hurting in the Plains. The dry spell that's been great for corn and soybean harvest is dooming the wheat crop as planting nears its end in the major wheat states. Now, many farmers wonder whether the crop will go into winter dormancy with much of anything left for when winter breaks next spring. And, it's happening at a time when the world needs more wheat, and analysts say the market will soon begin to take note.

Most of the wheat crop is planted in Kansas. And, in parts of the state, little or no rain has fallen in the last month, which is causing poor emergence and stands as the crop breaks through the dry ground.

"Our wheat is in as of Sunday, but it is dry. Much of the state has been without rain for a month or more," says Kansas Wheat communications director and farmer Bill Spiegel.

Overall, Spiegel says the crop so far is "1 for 2" on the 4 key factors for top wheat yields: The right planting time, optimal moisture at planting, good winter moisture and mild weather conditions during spring flowering and grain fill.


(photos by Tanner Ehmke).

Even in places where rain has fallen, the late-summer and early-fall dry cycle has left the subsoil with littel moisture to get the crop up in good shape before it goes dormant for the winter.

"I would rate the crop as poor to average," says David Schemm, vice president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers (KAWG) and a farmer near Sharon Springs, Kansas, in a KAWG report. "Some wheat was planted into moisture and it looks okay, but there is very little subsoil moisture to keep that crop going."

As of Sunday, USDA reported 12% of the Kansas crop is in poor to very poor condition because of drought conditions. That's statewide; conditions in the western part of the state are worse.

"My dad and our neighbor both say this is the driest year in their career, and they both started in 1976," says Dighton, Kansas, farmer Tanner Ehmke. "Most of our wheat is coming up, but we'll need some rain in a few weeks before we head into winter. Otherwise, we're going to have some problems with winterkill."

In many of his fields, Ehmke says the soil moisture was low enough that the young plants "ran out of water" and the coleoptile has not emerged from the surface. "I had to dig down to find it," he adds. "There's little chance of these plants making it to winter."

Some rain is in the forecast, fortunately. Much of Kansas and points south should get some moisture through this week, according to Tuesday's Freese-Notis Weather, Inc., Market Weather Commentary.

"There remains good hope that we can get the dry areas some nice rains over the next 10 days," according to Freese-Notis. "By the end of this week we should see most of Kansas and points southward pick up at least some 0.50- to 1-inch amounts, though there will be a pocket in especially Oklahoma that sees 1- to 2-inch totals. The best rains there will be for Friday and Saturday."

In the meantime, there are things for drought-stricken farmers to do to possibly improve early prospects, says Kansas State University Extension agronomist Jim Shroyer.

"Consider using a fungicide seed treatment, and a starter fertilizer," Shroyer says in a report from K-State. "The idea is to make sure the wheat gets off to a good start and will have enough heads to have good yield potential, assuming it will eventually rain and the crop will emerge late. Wheat that emerges in November almost always has fewer fall tillers than wheat that emerges in September or October."

Though many farmers are still holding out for rain before they plant, others are using other tools and systems to get their crop started. Farmersforthefuture.com member Nick, who farms in southwest Kansas, says though he's waiting on rain, others in his area are doing what they can now to get the crop started, rain or not.

"I do see a lot more irrigated wheat no-tilled behind corn this year," Nick says. "Maybe a lot of guys contracted some $6-plus wheat and figured the risk is less to grow it now than to see what fertilizer prices do with corn season in 2011."

Looking ahead, Mother Nature's going to have to do a lot to help the young wheat out of its poor early start if the crop's going to realize the majority of its yield potential next summer. And as of right now, with a "moderate or strong" La Nina pattern, she's not looking too helpful.

"The combination of poor establishment and stress during heading results in reduced yields which have been seen in previous moderate and strong La Nina years." says Kyle Tapley, ag meteorologist with MDA EarthSat/CropCAST. "Looking back at the 10 moderate or strong La Nina events since 1950, winter wheat yields were down on average nearly 3% nationally compared to the trend yield."

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