Harvest on pace to be the smallest since 1996

5/9/2014

By KELTON BROOKS

kbrooks@gctelegram.com

Like an audience watching a horror film nervously awaiting for a disaster to unfold right before their eyes, Vance Ehmke has those same worried eyes watching his wheat wither because of the drought's historic lack of moisture, warm and dry conditions, and harsh winds.

"I'm very nervous about where we are going with the crop. We're just sitting on a disaster, slowly watching it happen. It's kind of spooky," said Ehmke, who is a farmer in Lane and Scott counties.

A crop production estimate of 260.6 million bushels — the lowest estimate since 2011 — came during the three-day Wheat Quality Council 2014 Hard Winter Wheat Tour that was concluded May 1. If that estimate were to become reality, it would be the smallest Kansas wheat crop since 1996.

Ehmke grows about 4,500 acres of wheat a year, and at the age of 65 and a longtime farmer, he said he has never seen anything like the current drought. He said previous years with hot temperatures and wind gusts have affected his crops, but nothing compared to this year, with his wheat receiving 15 percent of normal precipitation. Normally, he said, his yields are determined more by rainfall in May and June, but so far, nothing, he said.

"The trend we are on is dangerous," Ehmke said. "Nothing out there suggests we will have normal precipitation. Every day it's getting worse."

According to a recent update from the Kansas State Department of Agronomy, in southwest Kansas, this has been the 11th driest start to the year since 1895. It has been the fourth driest start of the year in south-central Kansas, and the second driest start of the year in southeast Kansas.

Dalton Henry, director of governmental affairs for the Kansas Wheat Association, said what's so disappointing to farmers is that the wheat got off to a good start last fall, and saw a bit of hope and optimism, but the damaging low temperatures from the winter and dry start to the year faded hope quickly.

Sunday, Garden City endured a record high of 97 degrees for May 4. On the same day, the temperature soared to a record high in Wichita of 102 degrees. Henry said there is only about a month and half left in the growing season across the state, and the opportunity to get better is limited because of the dryness and the extreme heat.

"It's still a much smaller wheat crop coming in regardless of what weather comes," he said.

The most recent winter wheat conditions rated 18 percent very poor, 29 percent poor, 36 percent fair, 16 percent good and 1 percent excellent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Winter wheat was jointed at 78 percent, which is ahead of the listed 65 percent from last year. However, those number are behind the five-year average of 86 percent. A total of 15 percent of winter wheat has headed, but behind the five-year 29 percent average, according to USDA field crop report.

The last time Garden City received any significant amount of rainfall was April 17, when .20 inches of rain fell. Another .12 inches of rain dropped the following day. From April 13 through 19, .35 inches of rain fell in Garden City.

Snow also provided some moisture in March, but particularly on March 8, when three inches of snow produced .20 inches of liquid. But Mary Knapp, state climatologist, said the moisture from winter months is long gone.

"The moisture from that is distant memory," Knapp said. "Now we are in the active growing season, but we're not getting any moisture."

While the heat has stressed the wheat, Knapp said what's more aggravating than the drought is the high wind. She said this year's wind compared to the long-term average is 3 to 7 mph faster. The wind numbers might not blow you away, but Knapp said it takes an increasing amount of high wind to bump up the long-term average by that much.

She said the warm weather in addition to a possible 60 mph wind gusts will only speed up the evaporation of any possible moisture and stress the plants.

According to the National Weather Service, on Sunday night and Monday morning, there is a 30 percent chance of rain, but meteorologist Mark Russell said it's not looking promising other than cloud coverage and cooler temperatures.

"Right now, it's just dry. We possibly won't see much (precipitation) for the rest of this month," Russell said.

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