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Kansas farmer hopes for enough rain to grow weeds

The drought in western Kansas is exceptional. How bad is that? Bad enough to make Jim Sipes wish for weeds. The fifth-generation wheat farmer has been struggling to get enough moisture to raise a full crop in Morton and Stanton counties for several seasons.

“Basically we’re functioning on half crops of wheat and half crops of sorghum for the past several years,” he says crediting the farm safety net and disaster aid for keeping the farm out of financial trouble.

“When I first started my farming career, you could just plant wheat, kind of forget about it, and then just go harvest it. Now, we can’t even get enough moisture in the fall or winter to get the wheat to sprout every year,” Sipes says. “Last year was the worst I’ve seen. We got no moisture in August or September. We got about 10% of the wheat we planted to come up.”

The crop was a complete failure.

“We barely have enough moisture at 15 or 16 inches of rain per year to make our cropping systems work. So, we’re at least 10 inches short,” Sipes says.

Rain does not always equal grain

When popup thunderstorms do come, the crisp field residue is perfect wildfire kindling. Sipes is still suffering the consequences of a blaze ignited by a lightning strike a year ago. 

With little to no crop in the fields, “hellacious winds” blow the light, sandy soil away. In December, 70 mile an hour winds blew for 10 hours, Sipes recalls. 

“I don’t know how many warnings we’ve had for over 50 mile an hour winds, but it seems like two or three days a week, almost all year,” he says. Dirt ends up in the house and drifted around equipment.

“You go to hook up the brakes and fire up the semis, and the brakes don’t work. Why? Because the lines are so filled with dust,” he says.

After the wheat crop failed this spring, Sipes planted grain sorghum. The blowing sand has cut off his crop in some places. Now Sipes just wants to hold on to his soil. 

“I hope it rains enough that I get enough weed pressure out there to stop the dirt from blowing,” says Sipes. “It's going to be a long summer.”

Kansas drought data

Of the top 18 corn growing states, Kansas has the second most severe drought conditions.

Exceptional drought, D4, is present in the southwestern counties of Hamilton, Kearny, and Finney, covering just over 1% of the state. D3, extreme drought in western Kansas covers 15% of the state. In contrast, much of eastern Kansas, 36% of the state, is free of drought conditions.

Map of Kansas drought conditions
Photo credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

The Crop Progress Report indicated Kansas topsoil moisture levels were rated 16% very short, 29% short, 52% adequate, and 3% surplus. Subsoil moisture levels in the state were rated 19% very short, 25% short, 53% adequate, and 3% surplus.

Precipitation totals for 2022 are as much as 6 inches below normal in Rawlins County, according to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM). IEM data shows less than an inch of rain has fallen this month across northwestern counties including Logan, Greeley, Wichita, and Rawlins.

Map of Kansas precipitation departure
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

Kansas livestock

Last week's heat wave made headlines when thousands of cattle in the state died suddenly. “It was essentially a perfect storm,” said AJ Tarpoff, beef extension veterinarian for Kansas State University.

“I have directed state agencies to do everything in their power to help Kansas cattle feeders who lost cattle due to heat stress,” said Governor Laura Kelly. “From expediting burial permits to reaching out to cattle producers across the state, my Administration is working to ease the impact of last weekend’s losses on the Kansas agricultural community.”

Kansas pasture and range conditions rated 12% very poor, 15% poor, 30% fair, 39% good, and 4% excellent in the June 21 Crop Progress Report.

Sipes says livestock farmers in his area are feeling the drought’s impact. “They can kinda make it work, but they’re running out of things to feed. You see them running around all over the place, trying to find places to feed the animals. They’re working themselves to death. It’s a real struggle.”

Kansas crops

USDA rated Kansas corn condition rated 2% very poor, 9% poor, 34% fair, 45% good, and 10% excellent.

The same report rated soybean condition 1% very poor, 5% poor, 31% fair, 54% good, and 9% excellent.

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