August 16, 2011 / 3:59 PM / 8 years ago

Parched U.S. farm fields mean trouble for wheat planting

* Farmers mull options, hope for rain
    * Texas driest in a century
    * Could take a "major hurricane" to replenish soil
    * Wheat traders eye "simmering" situation
    By Carey Gillam
    KANSAS CITY, Mo., Aug 16 (Reuters) - Kansas farmer Larry Kepley is
almost out of hope.
    After drought left the veteran wheat farmer with what he called the
"worst wheat harvest" he's ever known, the odds for next year's crop are
looking just as grim.
    Sun-baked fields are as hard as rock, and moisture levels deep into the
soil are nearly nonexistent as drought persists throughout much of the U.S.
southern Plains.
    "We're always saying next year it will be better, but it doesn't look
very hopeful at this point," said Kepley, who grows wheat in the far
southwestern part of Kansas, one of the nation's top winter wheat states.
    It is still early, much too soon, to gauge prospects for what will be
the 2012 winter wheat crop. Farmers are still counting their bushels from
this summer's harvest, and collecting on insurance payments for fields that
failed to deliver.
    But planting season is rapidly approaching, and farmers have to figure
out how much seed to plant, how much to spend on inputs like fertilizer,
and how best to cover their risk. And with soils so dry and last year's
harvest a disappointment for many, prospects for a bountiful 2012 harvest
are in jeopardy.
    Some farmers like to get their fields planted in early September, and
hope for sprouting of young green wheat that hungry cattle can graze. Hay
is in short supply throughout the country and ranchers desperately need the
forage early wheat can provide for their animals.
    Whether for grain or for forage, most look for late-September to
mid-October seeding. But for all, soil moisture is critical. And this year,
there just is not very much of it.
    "We've had some recent rain, but it hasn't been very much and it by no
means has erased the deficits of moisture that are ongoing," said Kansas
state climatologist Mary Knapp.
    Adequate moisture is critical for seeds to sprout and for root systems
to develop; important growing areas in Kansas and southward into Oklahoma
and Texas are severely lacking.
    "We need some type of tropical storm. It probably would have to be a
major hurricane," said Mark Hodges, executive director of Plains Grains
Inc, a crop marketing organization representing farmers throughout the
Plains.
    <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
           Kansas State University wheat water usage:
      here
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    Traders in wheat futures are keeping a close eye on the situation.
    "It is an issue that is simmering," said Newedge analyst Dan Cekander.
"Everybody sees what happened this year. Obviously there is still time to
get rain. But when you get into September, it will get more serious."
    DISAPPOINTING HARVEST
    Pessimism over what will be harvested next summer follows a sharply
disappointing harvest this summer.
    Kepley's fields, for instance, averaged only about 4 bushels an acre, a
far cry from a more typical 30 to 40 bushels per acre for winter wheat
farmers.
    The crop that was harvested this summer bore the brunt of the brutal
drought that sent scorching temperatures and long stretches without rain to
the Plains and southern states.
    Texas was the worst hit. The first seven months of the year were the
driest ever recorded in the Lone Star State. Total accumulation of rainfall
was but a fraction of what is normal and, more important, needed.
    Typically a healthy wheat plant will use 20 inches of moisture through
the course of a growing season. Though the roots of a wheat plant usually
extend down two feet, they can stretch four feet into the ground to draw
the nutrients the plant needs.
    "If you don't have the moisture early, you will not get seed
germination or emergence," said Hodges. "While there is not an early high
water demand, it is also very critical there be enough."
    North-central Texas, for example, on average gets more than 35 inches
of rainfall for the first seven months of the year. This year, however,
that total was less than 4-1/2 inches.
    And some areas of the state haven't had a drop all year.
    Levels of "extreme" and "exceptional" drought cover more than 94
percent of Texas, according to a report issued last Thursday by a coalition
of U.S. climatologists.
    Oklahoma similarly is suffering, with extreme and exceptional drought
now spread through 93 percent of that state.
    Drought has taken a toll.
    Texas this summer harvested only 52 million bushels, down from 127.5
million in 2010. Oklahoma harvested 74.8 million bushels, down from 129
million. Kansas, the top winter wheat-producing state, harvested 273
million bushels, down from 360 million, according to a report issued
Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
    "It has just been horrible this year," said Brenda Sidwell, a crop
insurance agent in Oklahoma. "Farmers don't know what to do. They are just
at a loss. It is so dry. They are trying to figure out what they are going
to do, how much seed to plant, whether or not to fertilize. It is just a
challenge."
    Sidwell said that after heavy losses suffered by many farmers this
year, some were looking at going light on fertilizer and seed this planting
season, which could limit the potential of next year's crop.
    And some were looking at a new type of insurance policy that safeguards
farmers against weather like drought. Farmers can collect if rainfall in
their area is less than a specified accumulation.
    Regardless of whether they get the rain they need or not, most farmers
plan to plant anyway. Farmers can "dust in" their seed, pushing seeds in to
dry soils and then hoping and waiting for the moisture to follow. The
strategy may not give them a crop but it is necessary if they are to
collect insurance.
    And the whims of weather patterns can always change.
    "We hope we get the moisture we need," said Kepley. "But we'll put some
wheat in the ground one way or the other."
 (Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by John Picinich)
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