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Parched winter wheat crop is badly stressed

Drought escalates on the High Plains

On either side of a county road in the Winter Wheat Belt, wheat fields – normally lush, green and waving with the breeze – are short, pale and turning blue, a surefire sign of stress.  

The field photographed here is less than six-inches tall, less than half what it would be in a normal year. 

The Kansas wheat crop, recorded at a record 52 bushels per acre in 2021, could total a fraction of that this year unless rains fall on the crop soon. It's rated 36% poor to very poor, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service. Another 38% is rated fair, and that rating could be generous.

According to the Kansas Mesonet, the western two-thirds of Kansas (an area often called America’s Breadbasket due to the widespread adoption of winter wheat) has gone at least 180 days without one-inch of rain. Counties on either side of the Kansas/Colorado state line are going from 200 to 330 days without one-inch of rain. The USDA Drought Monitor dated April 26 shows that in the the region where 75% of the nation's winter wheat crop is grown (Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas), almost all the acres devoted to wheat are in Severe to Extreme Drought. 

Daryl Strouts, president of the Kansas Wheat Alliance, says the conditions are abysmal.

“Any of the wheat planted after fall harvest last year is taking on a funny color. The wheat that was planted conventionally is hanging on,” says Strouts, who toured central and western Kansas last week.

The crop is a week or two behind normal. If rains come in the next week, the crop could turn out to be “okay.” If not, expect wheat growers from around the state to talk to crop insurance agents about abandoning the crop. Crop adjusters are already working fields where the drought is most severe. In southwest Kansas near Johnson, the adjuster has already zeroed out some wheat, Strouts reports.

“In southwest Kansas, the conditions are terrible,” he adds. “The crop is short, the color is blue. There was a narrow stretch from Sharon Springs to Dodge City to Great Bend where they had more rain. But outside of that, the wheat crop is not real good.”

Drought in winter wheat country is not unprecedented. Strouts recalls a three-year stretch from 2010-12 where dry conditions persisted. But with wheat, a little rain coming at the right time can make a crop. Time is running out for these wheat growers, however. And the angst is exacerbated by relentless winds. The drought is one thing; wind is soul-sucking.

Day after day, seemingly, sustained winds of more than 20 miles per hour – and gusts two to three times that - are taking a toll on an already stressed crop.

“I’ve never seen wind like this, for days at a time,” Strouts says.  

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