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Drought Hammers Winter Wheat Across The Plains

Much of the Midwest and the Plains have been battling drought for years. And the current winter wheat crop looks like it will be one of the worst in recent memory, stressing farmers in the heart of the Wheat Belt – from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska.

In Nebraska, a full quarter of the winter wheat crop is rated poor to very poor, and Nebraska farmers are doing comparatively well. More than 40 percent of the wheat acres in Colorado are poor or worse; nearly 60 percent in Kansas and Texas; and an incredible 80 percent in Oklahoma.

“We’re expecting a harvest around 260 million bushels, two-thirds of what an average crop might be,” said Aaron Harries, marketing director for the Kansas Wheat Commission. “And if 260 million bushels is the actual harvested number that will be the lowest we’ve had since 1996.”

Persistent drought, harsh winds and below normal winter temperatures, combined with already low sub-soil moisture levels, have decimated the winter wheat crop in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. These states make up the heart of the wheat belt—even with drought-affected low yields last year, they still produced one-third of the national winter wheat crop.

“I’d imagine there’s hundreds of thousands of acres in Oklahoma and Texas that won’t even be harvested,” Harries said.

That may mean lower exports from those states. Wheat prices surged in early May based on reports of drought-stressed fields, but have fallen recently, in part due to production expectations in countries like Canada and Russia.

“Wheat is a global commodity so there are a lot of different factors and countries that play into the price of wheat,” Harries said.

That may, perhaps, alleviate some of the pressure on the price of bread and other wheat products, but won’t comfort Midwest wheat farmers.

In southwest Nebraska, farmer Jim Haarberg of Imperial is still holding out hope for a good yield. Walking through a corner of wheat on a recent day in May, he said his crop was 6 inches shorter than normal and filled with shorter, darker patches, which he said is a sign of drought stress.

“You’ll see patches in the field just like this, thinned out,” Haarberg said. “You can see the taller wheat here, more vibrant, they got more moisture.”

Shorter stalks of wheat, stunted by drought, will make about half of what full-size stalks will produce. Unlike in the southern tip of the Wheat Belt, in Texas and Oklahoma, farmers in Nebraska could still benefit from late rains. 

“Wheat is kind of a funny crop. A little bit of rain at heading time can make a halfway decent crop,” Haarberg said. “So the rain is crucial at certain times on winter wheat.”

Further southeast, outside McCook, Neb., farmer and rancher Randy Peters guesses his driest fields will average only 15 bushels per acre, far below his usual yield of 70 bushels.

“This year we just haven’t had hardly any rain,” Peters said. “The pastures are looking as poor as I can ever remember them looking for the first part of May.”

Peters estimates this year’s low wheat yield will probably mean a personal loss of half a million dollars.

But will years of battling drought push Wheat Belt farmers to try planting a different crop? Probably not.

“If you can’t raise wheat, you can’t raise anything in this country,” Peters said.

In arid farming regions like the Great Plains, dryland wheat remains one of the heartiest, adaptable and reliable crops available. Even if it hasn’t always panned out for farmers during the last few years.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agricultural issues in the Midwest. You can read more about the project on their website.

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