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Wheat planters roll as drought lingers

Rain's fallen in much of the central portion of the U.S. over the last week -- some spots getting as much as 4 inches last weekend -- and though it's a welcome break from this summer's drought, it's still up in the air whether it will mean much to wheat farmers who need moisture to get the 2012 crop sown this fall.

In the spots where rain's fallen the last few days, planting conditions have improved immensely. It's just the front end of what farmers in Kansas are optimistic is a new trend that can boost next year's crop.

"Much of Kansas is in a severe drought, but we had widespread showers the last four or five days that will provide enough moisture to get newly-planted wheat out of the ground, established and headed into winter," says Bill Spiegel, wheat farmer from Jewell, Kansas and Kansas Wheat communications director. "Then, we can hope for winter moisture to replenish these parched soils and carry the wheat crop through."

In far western Kansas, Jonathan Dansel's been able to do a lot of planting and soil preparation on his farm near Weskan. The moisture he's received lately has made all the difference so far, he said earlier this week.

"I started drilling wheat today...drilling very nicely, good moisture," Dansel says, adding he used a combination of chemical fallow and tillage earlier this fall, a system that allowed him to take advantage of residue and soil tilth this summer. Then, when the rainfall hit, it made for great conditions for planting.

"I'm thinking that may be the ticket, because you get all the good out of the reside shading the ground all summer and a great stand because of the 2 inches of tilth," he says. "I had to because there was a 2-inch crust that I was having trouble penetrating. I shattered it up, then it rained half an inch on it. Man, what a seed bed."

Planting tips

But, conditions aren't ideal everywhere. That makes getting a good stand up early of utmost importance this fall, says Kansas State University Extension agronomist Jim Shroyer. He advises keeping these tips in mind to maximize your chances of a good stand this fall before winter dormancy:

  • Proper tractor speed. "It is best to use a tractor speed of between 5 and 6 miles per hour in most cases when drilling wheat, depending on the amount of down pressure on the openers," Shroyer says. "If higher speeds are used, the openers can tend to 'ride up' in the soil every now and then; at slow speeds, openers can sink a bit."
  • Proper, uniform seeding depth. The ideal planting depth for wheat in most cases is about 1.5 inches. When planting early into very warm soils, it is especially important not to plant too deeply since coleoptile lengths are shorter than normal under warm conditions, Shroyer advises. "Getting a uniform seeding depth is also important," he adds.
  • Firm seedbed. One of the most common problems in wheat stand establishment is planting into loose, fluffy soils, Shroyer says. This problem tends to occur most often where soils have been tilled repeatedly during the summer.
  • Plant during the optimum time. "In general, wheat should be planted somewhere around the Hessian fly-free date. There may be good reasons to plant some wheat before the fly-free date, such as planting for pasture or time pressures from having considerable acreage to plant," Shroyer says. "But stand establishment and ultimate grain yields are usually best when wheat is planted after the fly-free date and before deadlines set by crop insurance."
  • Adequate soil fertility. In general, producers should apply at least part of their nitrogen before or at planting time to get the plants off to a strong start. Nitrogen rates of 20-30 lbs can help with fall establishment and tillering. If the soil is low or very low in phosphorus or potassium, Shroyer adds, these nutrients should be applied at planting time as well so that the plants benefit early in their development.
  • Using a seed treatment. "Fungicide seed treatments may help with stand establishment in certain situations. For seed production fields, a systemic seed treatment is highly recommended to help keep seedborne pathogens such as bunt and loose smut out of seed stocks," Shroyer says. "In addition, seed treatments sometimes improve stands."
  • Make adjustments for planting into row crop stubble. When planting wheat into grain sorghum stubble, producers will need an extra 30 lbs N per acre over their normal N rate. Also, it is important to make sure the sorghum is dead before planting wheat. When planting wheat into soybean stubble, producers should not reduce their N rates since the N credit from soybeans doesn’t take effect until the following spring, Shroyer says. If the wheat is being planted no-till after row crop harvest, N rates should be increased by 20 lbs N per acre over the normal N rate. Seeding rates should be increased when planting wheat late after row crop harvest.

Market action

The drought conditions in the Plains and the problems that's causing for planting could drive some major movement in the wheat trade between now and winter, one CME Group floor trader told Agriculture.com Markets Editor Mike McGinnis on Tuesday. Add to the mix the newer variable of increased wheat feeding to livestock, and there's plenty of room for upside in the wheat trade.

"There is still plenty of time for winter wheat planting. So, drought talk will increase as we get into mid-October," the trader said Tuesday. "If you end up getting past hurricane season which ends in November and you have not had a tropical system into Texas then you may lose a chance to make up rain deficit until next Spring. That is too late for wheat planting."

And, the drought's not just stateside -- dry conditions in big wheat areas like the Ukraine aren't helping things any. Combined with forthcoming crop supply and demand numbers from USDA and the drought could "light the fuse toward shortcovering," the trader tells McGinnis.

"If it shows record wheat-feeding, then you may get another run of buying wheat and selling corn," the trader says. "Ukraine's drought is getting some press as well as hurting winter wheat prospects there. I am supportive at current prices for corn and wheat, willing to sell 660 puts."

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