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Plains wheat crop is down to the wire

Kansas and Nebraska wheat farmers see drought conditions again affecting their crops.

4 Min Read
winter wheat
PHOTO FINISH: It’s going to be a race to the finish line for winter wheat in the Plains states this season. That is, if the rains come and storm damage holds off, say farmers. This field, near Dodge City, was showing signs of drought, but rains in the forecast may get it across the finish line to harvest.Jennifer M. Latzke

As the calendar turns to May, wheat farmers across the Plains watch their crops head down the home stretch through grain fill and the harvest finish line.

Every growing season is a race against Mother Nature, and the 2023-24 season is no different. In fact, the conditions are very familiar to many in the Plains — drought, a late freeze, spring storms leading to spotty stands and more.

Kansas has ‘pockets of good’

Last fall, farmers had some optimism as they drilled the 2024 wheat crop. They started with a good moisture that had the wheat going good into the winter months. Some decent snows in January and February in southwest Kansas gave farmers even more hope. But then the precipitation shut off, and the crop has deteriorated quickly. From the Feb. 25 to April 28 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reports, the crop rating dropped from 57% good to excellent, to just 31% good to excellent, according to Kansas Wheat.

A late March freeze, with little snow cover, and early-planted wheat with advanced growth made for a tough combination in parts of the state, says Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations for Kansas Wheat. He spoke May 1 from a quick scouting tour of the state’s wheat crop.

“I’ve seen more freeze damage than I’ve seen in a long time,” he says. “From Manhattan to McPherson, it’s pretty widespread. It’s easy to see from the road.”

Harries says driving down I-35 from Manhattan to Wichita, there was some decent wheat, but it was in need of a good rain.

Tim Turek farms near South Haven, in the south-central part of the state. He says the wheat in his area looks OK to average. But, as you drive west, he says, the worse the wheat looks. A few good rains at the end of April and the first part of May helped a lot, he says.

“Stripe rust, for us, is fairly prevalent,” Turek adds. He says he treated quite a bit of his wheat before the rain — a gamble to be sure, but needed.

Harries says the Kansas wheat crop is all ahead of schedule, and once again, the state has a tale of two wheat crops.

If you draw a triangle from the southwest corner of Kansas to Hays, then to Hutchinson, Harries says, everything in that triangle and south of the line is not in good shape because the spring precipitation just hasn’t come along.

“There’s pockets of good, you know, like far west-central Kansas, around the Sharon Springs area, because they got the snow and a little bit of rain,” he says. Still, hotter temperatures and windy days aren’t good for a crop that’s in grain fill.

Some farmers have already terminated their wheat, Harries says. Some used it for grazing while others went out and sprayed the wheat. It depends, he says, on their subsoil moisture.

Things look ‘good to excellent’ in Nebraska

Kent Lorens farms near Stratton, Neb., and currently serves as chairman of the Nebraska Wheat Board. He was first appointed to represent District 4 in Nebraska in 2014. Lorens grows wheat and runs a cow-calf operation in Hitchcock County, in the southwest portion of the state.

Last season, Lorens wasn’t worried about insects and diseases in his wheat crop. He was worried about drought. “Drought last year had the highest altering impact on the crop,” Lorens says. “The crop for me was good — right at the county average or a little above,” he explains. “In this area, most fields were below-average to average, with a few exceptions of well above average.”

Looking into this spring, the fall-planted crop of wheat on Lorens’ land is good to excellent coming out of dormancy, with mostly very good stands. “The wheat now [May 1] is well-jointed, which is a week to 10 days ahead of average for our area for this time of year,” Lorens notes.

“As of now, there is very little to no insect or disease damage taking place,” he says. “One of the bigger threats is stripe rust fungus. It has not appeared as of yet.”

Last season by mid-June–late in the growing season for wheat — Nebraska Extension plant pathologist Stephen Wegulo reported trace levels of stripe rust across the wheat-producing areas in the state, including as far north as Holt, Sheridan and Sioux counties; and as far east as Washington and Nemaha counties. Because they arrived so late, no significant impacts were expected at the time on yield.

In early June last season, Wegulo also found several fields with tan spot in the Panhandle. The fields hit by tan spot had wheat residue on the soil surface, which provided tan spot inoculum. Tan spot fungus forms black fruiting structures, which mature on wheat residue in the fall and the spring. Then, they release spores when there is rainfall or irrigation in the spring and summer. The spores are spread by wind, and they infect foliage, beginning with lower leaves.

For Lorens and other wheat producers in his region, the yield-robbing condition that remains on their minds most is continued drought. Recent rains this spring have helped greatly, Lorens adds. Because the crop is ahead of normal, there also is always concern about a late killing frost.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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