“As bad as it’s ever looked”: Tough times for Nebraska wheat farmers

Wheat field in Deuel County, Neb. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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June 20, 2013 - 6:30am

It’s been a tough year for Nebraska’s wheat farmers. This week the USDA reported more than half of the state’s winter wheat crop was in poor or very poor condition. Some farmers will have no crop at all.

Every year Dan Hughes plants approximately 2,000 acres of hard red winter wheat. It’s a crop that’s common where he farms, in Chase and Perkins counties in the southwest corner of Nebraska. It’s mostly non-irrigated and it doesn’t rain here as much as other parts of the state. But wheat usually does well in this environment. That’s not the case this year.

“It’s going from that dark green, emerald green that would be a healthy plant to more of a pale, kind of a pea green, split pea soup type of green,” Hughes said, describing his wheat. “You can just see that the plant is being stressed for moisture.”

Moisture that isn’t there. It was already dry when Hughes planted last fall. There wasn’t much snow over the winter and there wasn’t much rain in western Nebraska this spring.


  • Excellent - 1%
  • Good - 15%
  • Fair - 32%
  • Poor - 28%
  • Very Poor - 24%



Latest USDA crop progress report (June 17)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln CropWatch

U.S. Drought Monitor (from National Drought Mitigation Center at UNL)

Nebraska Wheat Board

“From my area west and south, most of the wheat has hit the wall,” Hughes added. “We’re losing bushels every day, and there are not that many bushels out there to lose. We’re past the point of no return. I don’t know that a rain right now would even do us any good.”

Hughes said he expects to harvest 15-20 bushels an acre from these fields later this summer. That’s less than half a normal crop. And Hughes isn’t alone. Nebraska farmers are expected to harvest around 45 million bushels of wheat this year, according to the latest USDA projection. That would be about 25 million bushels less than normal and the lowest amount since 1944.

Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board, said the state’s low wheat harvest projections influenced some by a reduction in the number of acres planted to wheat over the years, with farmers planting more corn and soybeans instead. But this historic low is mostly a reflection of poor growing conditions.

“A number of the producers I have contact with, their crop didn’t even come up in the fall,” Schaneman said. “It didn’t get enough moisture and actually came up in the spring. Basically that kind of weakens that plant, it has more susceptibility to some disease pressures, and you don’t have the growth in the spring so that crop’s behind all through the season.”

This year’s wheat crop is among the worst Bob Klein, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln western crop specialist, has ever seen, and he’s been working with farmers for more than 50 years. Klein said wheat producers lose twice with these conditions, because of a common crop rotation practice where over the span of three years farmers plant wheat, then a different crop like corn, then allow the ground to idle for a season before starting over.

“Not only do we have a poor wheat crop, but then we don’t have the good crop residue, wheat residue, to plant corn, or grain sorghum or another crop in next year,” Klein said. “So we usually find that here in western Nebraska if we don’t produce a good wheat crop, the success of our spring planting crops like corn and grain sorghum the next year really go down a lot. So we know we’re probably going to lose two years.”

Klein said wheat growers have few options.

“Some of those people are destroying those stands and replanting other crops,” Klein added. “A number of them are leaving them because they want that residue to protect the soil.”

McCook farmer Randy Peters received timely rain on some fields so he’s going to harvest his wheat, although he expects half the crop of last year. But with fields that look even worse, Peters said many of his neighbors have already given up on this year’s wheat.

“If you go two, three miles in any direction, over half of the wheat’s been torn up and insurance has been taken on it,” Peters said.

Even with insurance, Peters said half a crop, or less, is still a large financial hit for producers.

“Hopefully insurance will keep you going another year to pay all the bills that have to be paid,” Peters said.

“Crop insurance maybe helps you keep the lights on, but you’re certainly not making headway,” Schaneman added. “It’d be a lot better just to get the crop.”

Schaneman said there is one possible bright spot. He thinks the wheat that’s survived has potential to be high in protein, which could mean it’s worth a little more. But that’s a small bright spot for producers like Hughes, dealing with one of the worst wheat crops he’s seen since he started farming in the mid-1970s. He’s optimistic, though. His dryland corn is looking good so far, and he’s going to leave the wheat until harvest and see what happens.

“I’m still hopeful that we’ll run a combine over it and get 10 to 20 bushels,” Hughes said. “Like I tell my banker every time I see him, a good rain is coming. If you weren’t an optimist, you better not be a farmer.”



Other Nebraska Crops (June 17 USDA Crop Progress Report)

Corn10%65%23%2%The crop is 100% emerged, which is average for this time of year.
Soybeans10%67%21%2%A few farmers are replanting soybeans because of problems caused by too much rain.
Sorghum25%41%26%7%Emergence is slightly behind the average for this time of year.
Dry Beans4%60%36%0% 


Jenny Rees, UNL extension educator in Clay County: “I honestly can’t say we have a crop that looks better than usual right now. This year’s just been another interesting year. In many ways it’s very similar in our area of the state to last year. We were having rains and had positive conditions in certain parts. But then the rains just shut off in June. So there’s nothing I would say that looks better than normal right now. I’d say there are fields that look as good as normal, but then there are a lot of things going on that are below normal right now. We just need to keep praying for rain, that’s for sure.”



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