There’s an old saying that wheat has nine lives.

But in western Kansas, farmers have pretty much used all of them.

Yet, despite just about every plague imaginable that could strike this year’s stand – including snow, freeze and disease – farmers aren’t writing off the 2017 wheat just yet.

“I’ve been told my entire life – never give up on the western Kansas wheat crop,” said Trevor Witt, agronomist and sales manager at the Garden City Co-op who has been scouting wheat fields after the late April snowstorm.

More will be known in coming weeks as the crop continues to ripen and depending on what Mother Nature dishes out before combines get into the field this June.

“I don’t think we will have that extreme top end,” said Witt. “I think we took a yield reduction. But there is still going to be fairly good wheat in the area.”

Snow damage

At issue is a crop in a state that typically produces more wheat than any other in the nation. According to Kansas State University, nearly a fifth of all wheat grown in the United States is from Kansas. The 2015 crop was valued at $1.56 billion.

Moreover, this year, farmers responded to the poor markets, planting 7.4 million acres – the lowest in about a century. Witt said that in his cooperative’s territory acres are down, as well.

That is now coupled with growing issues, including the unusual April 29 and 30 storm that left anywhere from an inch to nearly 2 feet of snow in some places. The event affected about 40 percent of the state’s wheat crop, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

But even K-State researchers have never experienced such conditions, making it difficult to speculate what could happen.

“It’s not as bad as we thought,” K-State assistant professor Romulo Lollato said of the snowstorm. “But this is a new event. We are learning as we go.”

Some of the wheat broke off and won’t produce, Lollato said. But much of the crop that was flattened by heavy snow is popping back up. However, the crop is weakened and stems in several fields are kinked or bent.

While the heads are developing, with the mechanical damage to the stem, there is concern the plant won’t keep up with the demand for water, and thus could suffer from heat stress, Lollato said. The western Kansas crop is also more susceptible to lodging.

“We might see some tiller abortion, or we might see some very, very light test weights,” he said.

He said fields that were further in development might have had more of an impact from the snowstorm.

With optimal growing conditions, farmers could still have another good wheat crop to harvest, but Lollato said a reality could be combines trying to pick up grain off the ground.

“Wheat can bounce back really well,” he said, but added in this unique situation, there are a lot of unknowns.

Farmers have told him they have never seen a weather event like this before.

Witt estimated a good percentage of the wheat in his territory stood back up. He added the true test of the southwest Kansas crop is whether it will stay standing with the extra weight in the head during grain filling.

Wheat streak mosaic

Witt noted that there were concerns about temperatures reaching below freezing a few nights in April. While there is scattered freeze damage in some fields, it doesn’t appear to be a big problem.

Wheat streak mosaic, it appears, is the region’s biggest issue, he said.

“I have a big grower that has 2,800 acres of wheat in Wichita County,” he said. “They have 500 that looks good and the rest has wheat streak mosaic in it.”

The area with the worst infections includes north Finney and Kearny counties, as well as Greeley, Scott, Lane and Wichita counties.

According to Kansas Wheat, because of the economy, there wasn’t as much money for controlling volunteer wheat last fall. Volunteer wheat is a host for the wheat curl mite, which is the transmitter for the wheat streak mosaic virus.

According to the wheat association, many fields in the west-central Kansas area are severely diseased and could experience more than 70 percent yield loss, if not a complete loss.

There were other trials, said Witt, including poor emergence, causing some dryland acres to be released early.

More than 7 inches of moisture has fallen since March in Finney County, according to the National Weather Service. Now, said Witt, the area needs sunshine. Too much moisture could lay the crop back over.

“I think we took a yield reduction, but there is still going to be fairly good wheat in the area,” he said.

That is, if Mother Nature cooperates.

“Anything that could have happened to the wheat crop has,” he said. “We don’t know how good it will be when it all shakes loose.”

Better conditions to the east

It could be a tale of two crops this year. As western Kansas tries to recover from the snow, farmers in central and south-central Kansas are anticipating another above-average harvest.

Reno County farmer Steve Sawatzky said the wheat in his area near Yoder “looks fairy well.”

“But we’ll know more at harvest,” he said. “It does look as good as last year, or on par with those yields, so far.”

Rains have helped, he said, noting his fields got a nice 30 hundredths from the Thursday night storm.

Stripe rust was an issue in central and south-central Kansas, said Lollato. Many farmers sprayed their fields.

Another issue is waterlogging of some of the fields due to the abundant moisture. This can cause the entire wheat plant to die due to anaerobic conditions. Lollato said when this happens, the area turns white and doesn’t produce grain.

“Every single field I drive by has some,” he said of waterlogging.

In Sumner and Cowley counties, some fields have as much as 15 to 25 percent.

The final results will come as harvest begins, which in southeast Kansas, where the crop is further along in development, could start in the next 10 days.

In the Barber County town of Kiowa – typically the first in the state to bin wheat, Steve Inslee, general manager of OK Co-op Grain, estimated harvest to beginning around June 6.

Cooler weather and rain have helped delay it, he said.

He expects another good harvest this year for both wheat and canola, which is harvested about the same time. But even with the bushels, it’s going to be a tough year, he said.

“We have producers who can’t survive on $3 wheat,” Inslee said. “They are going to have to have a lot of bushels.”

Ken Gamber, who farms northwest of Hutchinson, is anticipating a good harvest, “barring some weather event that wrecks it or something,” he said.

He, too, said a big issue is the prices. On Friday, the wheat prices at several elevators in Reno County were hovering around $3.50 a bushel.

Gamber said he runs older equipment that is paid for, so his cost of production is lower than some, helping him to make a profit on cheaper wheat.

He recalled the 1980s farm crisis – another era of low commodity prices and high interest rates.

“There were troublesome times back then,” he said.

Gamber said he realized he needed a second income to support his family and eventually began driving a bus while going back to school to finish his degree. For several years, he was a math instructor at Hutchinson Community College, farming at night and on weekends.

He retired this week. Now he will focus solely on farming – starting with the June wheat crop.

“I think the prospects are good for the wheat,” he said. “But you never know for sure until the combine rolls through it.

“Wheat is an amazingly resilient crop, but everything has its limits,” he said. “I have my fingers crossed.”

Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.

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