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For 2007 crop: Wheat acres may double in Arkansas

Arkansas wheat producers are expected to double their acres this fall, provided Mother Nature cooperates at planting time and prices remain relatively high.

This harvest season, the state's growers produced their highest average yield ever in Arkansas, at 61 bushels per acre, noted University of Arkansas wheat specialist Jason Kelley. “We beat our previous record by almost 10 percent, which is phenomenal.”

A dry spring at harvest contributed to excellent quality in the wheat crop as well, Kelley said. “In past seasons, we've had some issues for wheat dockage due to test weight. But overall, our test weights were very high this year. In our county variety trials, it was common to find test weights as high as 61-62.”

The big surprise has been wheat prices, spurred higher due to lower U.S. wheat production and problems the Great Plains had in its hard red winter wheat crop.

Many Mid-South wheat producers have taken advantage of those futures prices to lock in prices for the next three crops. “Producers don't get really excited about $3 wheat. But when you get $4.50, that is what is really driving the acres. We have a lot of producers who have wheat booked for 2007 and 2008,” Kelley said. “Even prices for 2009 wheat at the Chicago Board of Trade are still high.”

Producers who are financially sound have probably booked a larger percentage of their wheat than those who are not, noted Kelley. “It may seem like 2008 is a long ways off for those who are in limbo over whether they're going to be able to farm after this year. So I don't know if those farmers have taken advantage of the prices. Those growers are the ones who really need to be able to do that.”

There are some indications that wheat prices are already getting some pressure. “Everything can change quickly, in the United States and globally. Two or three countries with exceptional yields, more acres and better yields in the United States and there could eventually be a lot of wheat on the market. And we know what that does for prices.”

But for now, excellent yields for Arkansas growers and high prices translate into more wheat acres in a big way. “If we get a good planting window, we'll probably plant close to 750,000 acres this fall.”

That's double the 370,000 acres planted in 2006, but still down significantly from the 1 million acres Arkansas planted 10 years ago.

Despite the higher expected acres, Kelley expects ample supplies of wheat seed for this fall. “There may be limited supplies of some of the brand new varieties that did exceptionally well in our state variety trials. But I don't think our producers are going to have trouble finding seed.”

Some of the more popular varieties of 2005-06 include AgriPro Beretta and Delta King 9410, both of which are expected to be in good supply.

Kelley said disappointing yields in soybeans for producers using the early soybean production program, could also be a factor for going to more wheat this fall. “The soybean price is down, too. So a lot of those guys may be looking at planting more wheat. There may be more of a trend toward double-cropped wheat and beans.”

Kelley says one practice catching on in Arkansas is planting wheat on bedded ground. “We have seen higher yields in wheat planted on a wide bed, especially during wet years. A lot of producers will plant no-till soybeans right on top of those beds after harvesting the wheat. We've had a labor crunch and any steps you can cut out between wheat harvest and bean planting, will be a benefit.”

As for the coming season, Kelley advises growers not to skimp on fertilizer. “Based off last year, fertilizer and the application cost account for half of the budget. Fertility is an issue. If producers don't have current soil samples, get out and get some. There may be some fields that need it and there may be some fields that don't.”

Another way to reduce input costs is to plant a variety that has a good disease package. “Hopefully, you wouldn't have to spray a fungicide on it. That could save you some money.”

Currently, fungicides are applied primarily on seed wheat fields. “Overall, about 20 percent of our wheat gets a fungicide application in any given year,” Kelley said.

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