Wheat's decent shape has farmers leery.
And, if favorable conditions prevail, it could be a bumper harvest.
By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News -
What a difference one year can bring.
At this time last year, the Kansas plains were extremely short of moisture, eventually causing what would be disastrous conditions for the state's wheat crop. This year's story is entirely the opposite. Thanks to spring rains, the crop has potential.
Yet, Barber County farmer Clark Thom isn't counting his eggs just yet. A lot can happen between now and when his combine rolls through his field.
With his wheat crop two to three weeks ahead of schedule and some of his southern Barber County wheat already heading out, he and others are worried a spring freeze could shatter the summer's prospects.
"It's what is being talked about in the coffee shop," Thom said. "Everyone is concerned about a freeze. Everyone."
The Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service rated the state wheat crop this week as 6 percent poor, 29 percent fair, and 65 percent good to excellent.
It's a far different outlook from a year ago when drought dug in and took a toll on the state's staple commodity. This year, however, rains have fallen in areas of Kansas that once were parched - including the more arid southwest part of Kansas.
Since September, some southwestern Kansas farmers have recorded nearly 9 inches of rain on their thirsty fields - well above the 6.95 running average for the period, said State Climatologist Mary Knapp.
To put it in perspective, KASS rated the 2011 crop as 37 percent poor, 35 percent fair and just 28 percent good to excellent.
"For the first three months of this year, they've had more rain than in the last 10 months of last year," Knapp said. "There are still major deficits to get out of ... but it's still a much better picture than it was last year at this time."
Meanwhile, south-central and southeast Kansas are at 108 and 101 percent of normal, respectively, Knapp said.
Not free of a freeze
Barber County Extension Agriculture Agent Tim Marshall remembers the Easter weekend freeze in 2007 that decimated the south-central Kansas wheat crop. Yet, while the concern for a freeze still looms this year, he said he isn't too worried.
"The more we get into April, the less I worry," he said. "To me, it feels like we're over the hump."
Farmers aren't out of the woods, however, said John Holman, a K-State Extension agronomist based in Garden City.
"The crop is so ahead of schedule and that makes me nervous," he said.
A freeze is just one of Holman's concerns. The recent damp, wet days make the wheat ripe for rust.
Holman said there is quite a bit of disease showing up in his territory. In fact, it's bad enough that farmers who don't treat their crop could lose up to 50 percent of their yields.
"It is that serious," he said. "Guys for sure should be scouting for rust. Many already are spraying. The yield potential is pretty good and the crop price is pretty decent. A person sure wants to protect their crop."
A new strain of the Triticum Mosaic Virus also is affecting some fields, he said. It isn't widespread like rust, however.
Kansas' wheat crop continues to develop two or three weeks ahead of normal, thanks to a mild winter and above-average temperatures in March.
About 6 percent of the crop already has headed and roughly 80 percent has jointed - ahead of the five-year average of 32 percent, according to KASS.
Temperatures in March were about 15 degrees warmer than normal, Knapp said. For April, the temperature is about 2 degrees warmer than normal.
It could translate to a somewhat earlier harvest, said Marshall.
However, that doesn't mean farmers will be greasing up the combines to start cutting a month early.
"We might be cutting wheat in May, but not the first of May," Marshall said, adding he figured it would be closer to a Memorial Day weekend harvest start.
And, Thom said, Mother Nature has a way of evening everything out.
"It might look really early, but Mother Nature kind of takes care of it," he said.
Knapp said she wouldn't be surprised to see the state's harvest wrapped up by the Fourth of July.
"But the likelihood of having it all cut by the fourth of June is not likely," she said. "Even when there has been an early start to the season, that really hasn't been correlating into an early harvest. What you get with the early start is an extended grain filling period."
That translates into higher test weights, she said.
The earliest Marshall said he could see combines rolling near the Barber County town of Kiowa - the traditional spot where harvest begins in the state - would be May 20.
"A week ago, when it was 90 degrees and sunshiny, it made you think it was going to wrap up quick," Marshall said. "But now it's 60 degrees and cloudy. If we settle back into a normal weather pattern, I think it is going to even out as we get closer."