Drought Hammers Winter Wheat Across South-Central Plains

Farmer Jim Haarberg of Imperial examines the crop in his circle corner of winter wheat. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
A sodden field after a sudden rainstorm near McCook, Nebraska, unusual in a region in its third year of drought. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Late season rains will probably help Nebraska farmers recover better yields, but not in states further south, where harvests have already started. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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June 10, 2014 - 6:30am

The south-central Plains Wheat Belt has been battling drought for years. And while Nebraska farmers have benefited some from recent rains, the current winter wheat crop looks like it will be one of the worst in recent memory, stressing farmers from Texas to Oklahoma, to Kansas.


A squeaky door swings open as a farmer enters the office of Wauneta Roller Mills, in Nebraska’s southwest corner. Owner Rogan Einspahr talks with his customer about the day’s forecast. Weather, especially rain, is a common topic of conversation lately, in a region that has experienced another dry winter. 

“We gotta catch a couple rains or else it’s going to be pretty bad. It needs a drink,” Einspahr said.

Wauneta Roller Mills, located in Wauneta, Nebraska. Rogan and Ashley Einspahr took ownership of the mill a couple years ago. They still use most of the original mill machinery from the 1920s.  (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Einspahr’s grain mill sources hard red winter wheat from southwest Nebraska and northeast Colorado and makes it into flour. He said some farmers are expecting such a small harvest this year they’re holding onto wheat from last year. Since farming drives the economy in Nebraska, that could mean some tough times.

“If last year’s wheat runs out I’m kinda up a crick,” Einspahr said. “It gets tight but usually you just send a truck wherever you can to get a load, hopefully it’s stuff you can use.”

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.

Jim Haarberg, farmer and president of the board of the Frenchman Valley Coop in Imperial, Nebraska. Below, Haarberg pulls up two different stalks of wheat to show the stunting and sometimes spotty effects of drought.  (Photos by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“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 they have fallen some recently partly due to production 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.

In southwest Nebraska, farmer Jim Haarberg of Imperial is still holding out hope for a good yield. Walking through a circle corner of wheat he said is six inches shorter than normal, he points to shorter, darker patches, which he said is a sign of drought stress.

“You’ll see patches in the field just like this, thinned out. You can see the taller wheat here, more vibrant, they got more moisture,” Haarberg said. He pulls two different stalks out to compare the heads of wheat. Pointing to the shorter one, he said it was stunted by drought and will probably make half what the other stalk will produce.

But Haarberg said unlike states further south, where harvests have already started, Nebraska wheat farmers may benefit from late rains. 

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

A little further southeast outside McCook, Nebraska, 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. The pastures are looking as poor as I can ever remember them looking for the first part of May,” Peters said.

Randy Peters, a farmer and rancher near McCook, Nebraska. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

But today there’s rain in the forecast. Thunder rumbles as we hop into the carriage of his ATV to visit a wheat field, and soon the skies open, forcing us to take shelter in his seed warehouse. Peters admits the sudden deluge is surprising, “I wish we could have been doing this a month ago,” he said.

Even with this rain, Peters estimates this year’s low wheat yield will probably mean a loss of half a million dollars.

Will years of battling drought push Wheat Belt farmers to try planting a different crop? Probably not, Peters said.  “If you can’t raise wheat, you can’t raise anything in this country.”

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

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