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Wheat farmers face "horrid" winter

Jeff Caldwell 12/05/2012 @ 12:57pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

In some parts of the super-parched Plains, farmers are already considering abandoning their wheat crop to make other plans for land suffering from a severe shortage of rainfall that has the wheat limping into dormancy in pretty bad shape.

But one expert says it's too early to throw in the towel, no matter how thirsty your crop is, even if some yield potential's been trimmed already.

"Leaving that crop until spring would behoove most growers," says Greg Kruger, University of Nebraska Extension cropping systems specialist. "Unfortunately, wheat doesn't have the ability to compensate like soybeans, and some of our other crops would. So the thin stands will certainly hurt yields, but I would hope that most of our growers will wait until spring to make any drastic changes to their cropping systems."

Holding on to hope for a crop that's limping into dormancy -- and is expected to be much closer to nearing that critical juncture in the next few days as unseasonably warm temperatures cool down -- is a tough pill to swallow for some. Lane County, Kansas, farmer Tanner Ehmke has watched Mother Nature all but execute his wheat, and he's found himself taking steps to preserve his crop that he never before envisioned.

"The stands are very thin and the roots are weak and underdeveloped, which raises the risk of winterkill and blowing fields. We’ve even had to postpone traveling for the foreseeable future because if the fields start blowing, we have to get out there with the chisel to turn up clods and break the wind," Ehmke says. "We already have the chisel hooked up to the tractor just in case. It’s that serious."

That makes it just as important to think a lot before you decide to throw in the towel on your wheat just yet. It can serve as a valuable tool in the fight against erosion.

"Not only do we pull that wheat off, we have that residue there. Wheat residue is very, very good for conservation, both of water and soil," Kruger says.

While he says he's most frustrated right now by the wheat market that's failed to move much higher in response to the ongoing drought in the Plains, Ehmke says he's bracing for conditions to worsen moving forward.

"It’s pretty frustrating to see the market so unresponsive to a crop that’s in serious trouble and getting worse by the day. And there’s no precipitation in the forecast, so it looks like we’re pretty much surrounded, and the cavalry ain’t comin,'" he says. "Unless something changes soon, we’re getting mentally prepared for what could be a pretty horrid winter."

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