There isn’t an official report on 2011-2012 wheat acreage yet, but farmers will tell you already there’s definitely been an increase in wheat acres this fall.
High wheat prices take a lot of credit for the increase, but the ongoing dryness enveloping the central and southern Plains also claims a good portion of credit. Compared to more thirsty crops like corn, milo and soybeans, wheat has the appeal of surviving drought while still producing a decent crop.
Industry experts are also indicating a significant increase in wheat acreage. Early ballpark estimates put planted wheat acres in Kansas at around 9.0 million to 9.2 million this year, up from 8.7 million in 2010.
True, planting conditions overall were much better this year than last thanks to some timely rains that boosted topsoil moisture enough to get a decent, early stand. Early reports indicate a solid start to the crop.
The subsoil moisture condition, though, is still concerning. According to USDA’s latest Crop Progress and Condition report for Kansas, subsoil moisture in the west-central part of the state, which includes Lane County where we farm, was rated 55% short to very short.
The wheat on the right, in a wheat-fallow rotation, performs better than wheat on the left, which is in wheat-sorghum-fallow. In extreme drought years, the more relaxed wheat-fallow rotation performs better than the more intense wheat-sorghum-fallow rotation.
But, when comparing field to field, crop rotations play a huge role in how much moisture you have. Here on our farm in Lane County, Kan., fields in the standard wheat-sorghum-fallow rotation have only 10 to 15 inches of moist soil. Fields in the most relaxed rotation of wheat-fallow-wheat, though, have two to three feet of moist soil. And on neighboring fields that were planted to more intense rotations, such as wheat planted into corn or milo stalks, zero moisture was to be found anywhere in the profile at planting time.
It gets worse as you move south. In southwest Kansas, it doesn’t matter what rotation you’re in; subsoil moisture for this region of the state was rated 98% short to very short with topsoil rated 90% short to very short.
With deficits this dire, it’s going to take a huge change in the weather trend over next few months to get the moisture profile back to where spring-planted crops like corn and milo can have a fighting chance. Entering into our driest months of the year with La Nina in full bloom, the likelihood of recharging the moisture profile is at best discouraging.
To preempt a continuation of the drought, farmers in our area are switching to a less intensive rotation to make better use of the short moisture. While some are sticking with the standard wheat-sorghum-fallow rotation if they have a strong insurance base for their milo to help them through the drought, the more relaxed wheat-fallow rotation is clearly coming back into use.
Wheat-fallow may not be as trendy as high-intensity annual cropping and is normally not as profitable as wheat-sorghum-fallow, but in extreme drought years, the rules of the game are changed. Now, the most conservative rotation makes the most sense when it comes to utilizing available moisture. And, it allows farmers to take advantage of higher wheat prices this year.
So while wheat-fallow may not be the cool thing to do when it comes to crop rotations, it’s the surest way of growing a crop and making farming pay in a drought year – and making money is about the coolest decision you can make.