Though it might not seem obvious this
week, it’s becoming an all-too-familiar refrain among western Kansas
farmers: “We need rain.”
Last year’s drought has continued into 2012. The wheat crop was planted
late and many farmers doubled the normal planting rate and drilled 90
to120 pounds per acre versus 50 to 60 pounds per acre in a normal year.
Because there was little to no subsoil moisture in the ground, the wheat
crop started slowly once it germinated. Very little growth occurred
until beneficial rains fell in November and December.
In January, nearly a foot of snow blanketed a large region of wheat
fields in southwestern Kansas. Since that time the crop has received
scant rainfall, and the crop is heading south in a hurry.
“We need rain,” Joe Jury, veteran Gray County farmer/stockman, said.
Annual rainfall averages about 20 inches in the sand hills he farms.
People often ask Jury how he can grow crops on that amount of moisture.
“I’d love to have an average rainfall of 18-20 inches in one year,” the
Gray County crop producer said. “I can grow a wheat or milo crop on that
amount of moisture.”
In 2011, the small farming community of Ingalls that Jury calls home, recorded fewer than 6 inches of rainfall.
“You can’t grow much of a crop with that little moisture,” he said.
“Last year we turned our cows on pasture in late April and started
feeding them the first of June. We’ve been feeding them ever since, and
I’m afraid we’ll do the same this year unless we receive rain and soon.”
As of mid-March, the wheat crop was beginning to suffer from a lack of
moisture. Eighty-degree days, winds of 50 and 60 mph and 15-percent
humidity are sucking dry what little moisture remains in the soil.
In his region of southwestern Kansas, some crop farmers already have
stripped some of their fields to stop the wind from blowing the soil out
of their fields. Feedlots west of Garden City have been cleaned out of
manure that has been spread on wheat fields in an attempt to keep them
“We’re starting to get beat up already,” Jury said. “Without additional
moisture, we can’t afford to lose the remaining soil moisture we have.
It could get ugly.”
That’s why Jury and some producers who have heard about the “Dirty
Thirties” and remember the drought of the early 1950s are looking at
alternative crops this spring instead of the traditional fall crops of
corn and soybeans. He’ll probably park his 30-inch planter and hook up
to his drills because row crops may not provide enough cover his land
will need to keep the soils in place.
Jury plans to plant pearl and German millets, sedan grass and forage
sorghums. With the drought of 2011, he didn’t grow any crops. He planted
milo but it hardly emerged from the soil before it died so what little
residue, and stalks that remain on his land are from wheat and milo
stubble back in 2010 — hardly enough to keep his valuable soil in place.
“This cover is degrading every day, and it’s pretty sparse,” Jury said.
“We’ve got to plant these alternative crops and get something to grow
and cover our soil up out here.”
The Gray County farmer has no-tilled for many years and believes that
without this practice there would already be dust piles in southwestern
Kansas with conventional tillage.
Like last year, farmers in southwestern Kansas are staring the
probability of another major drought straight in the face. Farmers like
Jury are thankful they have crop insurance and the livestock business
has buoyed up their faltering crop production. For strictly dry-land
farmers, it’s been a real bust.
“I’ll say it again, we need rain and we need continuous rains during the
next few months to make this crop business happen out here,” Jury said.
“My dad had a saying that it always rains at the end of a drought. I’m
hoping and praying this doesn’t turn into several years of little
John Schlageck is a Kansas agriculture commentator with Kansas Farm Bureau.