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Arkansas wheat dealt setbacks

Too much rain and not enough sunshine means the Arkansas wheat crop is later than usual. As he strides through waist-high wheat nearing harvest, Jason Kelley says many people are asking how late it really is.

“Compared to last year's very early crop, we're a few weeks later,” says the Arkansas Extension wheat specialist. “Compared to a normal year, we're a week to two weeks late.”

An abundance of cool, wet weather has slowed the crop's progress. “The wheat crop has really struggled. It got wet soon after planting and has stayed wet for about six months.”

This spring, flooding rains have visited the state frequently. However, the pattern was set early when half the state's wheat was planted in November after October rains prevented trips across the field.

Overall, some 970,000 acres of wheat were planted in Arkansas. At least 50,000 of that — “probably more,” says Kelley — were totally lost due to flooding.

In reality, “to some degree, every acre was negatively impacted by the poor weather. So many problems have been in play — everything from delayed fertilizer applications, saturated grounds, delayed herbicides, on down the list.”

This year, good field drainage is a wheat farmer's best friend. “If you had good drainage — considering all the problems the crop has been through — wheat looks pretty good.”

The USDA estimates Arkansas will average 53 bushels per acre. “Hopefully, we'll get that. Last year, after the notorious Easter freeze, the yield was 41 bushels. So we'll have a much better crop. But in 2006, the yield was 61 bushels, a record. This year will be more of an average yield.”

Bill Fletcher's wheat — located in central Arkansas between Lonoke and Little Rock — is slowly ripening. Extension variety plots take up one corner of a field near his shop. The wheat will be harvested in mid-June.

“That's off kilter,” says the easy-going Fletcher, a six-week-old Airedale puppy tumbling at his heels. “We finally got milk in the crop to firm up. It's getting doughy. I thought that would never happen. We're at least 10 days behind what's normal.”

This season, there has been “a lot more septoria” in the state's crop, says Kelley. “Many fields that wouldn't have been sprayed for that had to be treated. Usually septoria stays low and doesn't do much. But the weather helped the disease move up the plants.”

Kelley praises Fletcher's willingness to work with Extension. “Jason may appreciate us letting him use this spot. But there's a reason. We've copied things that I've seen Jason and (Lonoke County agent, Jeff Welch) do and have increased our yields by, probably, 30 percent in the last few years.”

Previously, “we were extremely pleased with 50-bushel wheat. Now, we hope for 70 bushels and have made higher than that. Some guys have made 100 bushels, but we haven't hit that yet.”

That's due to “better varieties along with updated management,” says Kelley. “If you have the combination, it'll pull yields up.”

This year, Fletcher — who farms around 2,000 acres with his son, Steel — sprayed all his wheat with a fungicide.

“That's representative of many growers,” says Kelley. “Normally, 20 to 40 percent of the crop will be sprayed. This year, at least two-thirds of our wheat was sprayed with a fungicide.”

Fletcher says he's learning more “about spraying some of these newer varieties. Some can handle not being sprayed a lot better than the older varieties.

“We'll consider that a little more from now on. Especially after several varieties — Pioneer 26R22 and Armor 3015 — didn't show disease symptoms nearly as bad as (other varieties).

“There's another reason I sprayed fungicide on my crop, this year: to maximize our yield. We thought we'd get a good price. But the basis (near $1.65 at press time) has been raised so much, much of that has been taken away.”

Did Fletcher have trouble finding wheat seed last fall? “No. As long as you were willing to reach deep in your pocket, you could find it.”

Fletcher plans to double-crop his wheat with soybeans. Being later in the season increases concerns. “That has to have at least a bit of an impact on yield and/or management. One farmer near here says you can expect a 1-bushel yield loss for every day beans are planted after June 20. That makes sense.”

Stinkbugs could be an issue on late beans, points out Kelley. Soybean rust is another thing that could bite later-planted soybeans.

“Planting this late, we're certainly watching for soybean rust movement,” says Fletcher. “We'll be in that window.”

However, few things worry the producer as much as rising fuel costs. “The fuel expense — aerial applicators, tractors, water pumps — is huge. It changes everything and outside the agriculture community few realize that.

“I'll tell you what I'm frightened of the most: our input prices — on fuel and fertilizer, particularly, but Roundup costs have also gone up 100 percent in the last year. Tractors typically burn through gallons of fuel per hour. Water pumps use from 2 to 4 gallons per hour and those run 24/7.”

If a pump averages a use rate of 3 gallons per hour, “that's $12 — nearly $300 a day,” Kelley points out.

“That's right,” says Fletcher. “And we won't put rice on anything but heavy clay because of the heavy cost of water pumping. That means we're planting, maybe, a third as much rice as we once did.”

And that's true even with higher rice prices. For budgets, “we're figuring around $5.25 for rice, net. This $13 rice actually translates to about $5.25. That's what it looks like by the time you calculate all the inputs.”

Another issue wheat producers ran into was in early March through early April. That was when determinations about an additional shot of fertilizer were made.

“A shot was applied and then it rained and rained,” said Kelley. “In that situation should more fertilizer be applied? How much was lost to the rains?

“We hope to answer those questions this year. We applied another 50 pounds of ammonium sulfate and 50 pounds of urea to plots to see if an extra shot of late nitrogen at boot stage would increase yields. The wheat looked greener later in the season, but we'll have to wait and see if that translates to more yield.”

Considering everything, “I honestly have hopes for this wheat crop,” said Fletcher. “It had wet feet all year long — it's amazing that it looks as good as it does.”

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