By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter
ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- If ever Plains wheat farmers needed a crystal ball, it was the spring of 2015. A stream of less-than-promising weather conditions has been working on this crop, with just 8% of the Kansas wheat crop harvested as of June 22. That's well behind the 5-year average of 33% harvested, according to the USDA's weekly Crop Progress report. After record rainfall, Oklahoma's harvest pace of 58% complete was also lagging behind the state's 73% average.
A recent spate of dry, warm weather has allowed fields to dry out and mature at a good pace. Kansas State University Extension agent Tom Maxwell predicted most Kansas wheat should be in the bin by the end of the first week of July.
"We've had some problems with all the rain, but it's shaping up to be a better wheat harvest than what guys were anticipating earlier," Maxwell told DTN. "We didn't know what to make of all that late May rain."
Between winterkill and dry soils, many wheat stands looked thinner than ideal this spring, and weeds flourishing in those stands have added to concerns, said farmer Justin Knopf. He and brother Jeff faced an unpromising crop on their farm near Gypsum, Kansas.
With one-third of their wheat harvested, the Knopf brothers are now expecting more fields to hit 50 bpa and some to even brush 70.
"Given what our tiller count estimates looked like in April, I would have guessed we'd see more yields in the mid-30s to upper-40s [bushels per acre]," Knopf said. "But wheat did a good job of filling the heads that were out there."
Maxwell said he is hearing of yield averages ranging from 35 to 60 bpa where he works in Saline and Ottawa counties. "Test weights been pretty decent and moisture is good, 11% to 12%," he said.
The Knopfs applied spring herbicides to control weeds in thin stands. They were more hesitant to apply fungicides, despite stripe rust that crept north from Oklahoma. Their low expected yield potential and the low price of wheat made the $3 to $10 cost per acre of fungicides unattractive, Knopf said. They sprayed only 20% to 25% of their fields with fungicide.
Then it started to rain. By the end of May, Knopf's farm and much of Kansas had received more than double the monthly average rainfall. In Texas and Oklahoma, May rainfall records were broken in a matter of weeks. Water-loving stripe rust ripped through wheat fields from Oklahoma to Nebraska; some of the Knopf's untreated fields were left with almost no leaf tissue in sight. Weeds flourished and wheat plants put out late spring green tillers, complicating harvest efforts.
THE COST OF WET
As farmers start harvesting fields with heavy stripe rust and flood damage, test weights could fall, and fields teeming with weeds and green tillers could increase moisture, Maxwell noted.
"There was a lot of wheat that didn't have any weed control back in March or April when some of these stands were a little thin and farmers didn't want to invest money in them," said Kansas State University weed scientist Curtis Thompson. "Now we are seeing a lot of marestail, Palmer amaranth and kochia coming up through that mature wheat crop. There's going to be a lot of green."
Weeds weren't the only ones taking advantage of the late spring rainfall. Many wheat plants themselves tried to compensate for thin stands with a flush of new tillers in late May, Maxwell said. As a result, many farmers like Knopf are facing some fields filled with green wheat heads poking up among the mature ones.
Green berries that make their way into the bin will increase moisture content, and those that get sorted out by the combine are likely to lead to a robust crop of volunteer wheat later this summer, Kansas State emeritus wheat specialist Jim Shroyer explained in a university news release.
"Wheat heads that form this late in the season in a crop otherwise nearing maturity usually add very little to the overall yield of a field," Shroyer noted in the release. "If these late, green heads are not close to being ready to harvest when the majority of the crop has dried down, it's best to start harvesting the field anyway."
Wheat with a moisture level above 13.5% is likely to be docked at elevators, as will wheat with lots of green, foreign material, so growers should be prepared for those costs, Maxwell said.
Growers should also be prepared to control any volunteer wheat that the late, green wheat heads produce, both Shroyer and Maxwell said. "Volunteer wheat is a huge source for wheat streak mosaic virus and the mites that spread it," Maxwell warned.
Post-harvest weed control is also likely to be an added expense this year, Thompson noted. "Growers will have to clean fields up after harvest," he said.
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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