The View From Rural Route #8
The good rain system that deposited between one and two inches over a parched central and eastern Kansas a couple of days before upland game bird season opened earlier this month only gave the western one-third a trace or few hundredths.
Farmers and landowners in the central one-third where the plurality of wheat is grown each year in the leading hard red winter wheat producing state cheered with gratitude, as did a lot of other people with good sense.
But out west conditions remained grim. I had checked the rainfall amounts and other reports and knew the system had missed the west. But other stories intervened. Also, 40 autumns here told me not to panic. The far west guys know what they’re doing, and there was still time to save their crops. Give it a few days; another system might bring them what they needed, I thought, and then wrote about something else for the week.
Then came word from Kansas State classmate and now renowned wheat grower from Scott County, Vance Ehmke, who had been host to wheat specialist Jim Shroyer following the missed rains. Vance wrote on his blog what the two found: some wheat hadn’t even germinated; worse, a lot of what had sprouted had woeful root systems.
Crown roots were missing, or were only an eighth of an inch long coming back down from the crown an inch or two above the seed. At germination, the seed sends down a little seminal root that keeps things alive until the crown establishes its root system. But this fall the crown roots have failed to develop in the dry dirt.
The plant not only lacks moisture, it cannot take up nitrogen readily. The plants are yellowish and diminished. They are now much more vulnerable to winterkill from severely low soil temperatures. Vance said dry soil temperatures can fall to 10 or 12 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas moist soil can remain in the low to mid 20s, thanks to the insulation provided by the wetness.
Shroyer said the outlook is not bright. If wheat fields have only the seminal roots, the crop will probably be very poor or no crop at all. If seeds germinate now and emerge in January, there might be a half of crop at best, the two men said. If April and May are cool with good rain, then the scenario could improve some, but Vance said he’d only look for yields in the teens or 20s.
In short, Vance quoted Shroyer, “western Kansas farmers need to keep praying for rain.”
Meanwhile, the same scene prevailed in eastern Colorado, and the overall poor conditions helped keep wheat prices from falling more, according to one marketing service. And Vance had rated 80 percent his own crop as being rated in the “fair to poor” category.
He would never say this, but I can: most years Vance Ehmke’s crops are as good as or better than any out west. So his current outlook doesn’t bode well.
Jim Suber is an award-winning farm, ranch, and rural life columnist residing on Rural Route No. 8, Topeka.
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