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Wheat growers have faced problems

Heavy rains, diseases and insects are a few of the many hardships Southeast wheat farmers have faced this growing season.

According to the USDA, the total number of acres of wheat planted in Alabama, Georgia and Florida was 585,000, compared to 745,000 in 2008. Regional specialists predict that yields will be lower than last year’s bumper crop.

Alabama growers planted 230,000 acres of wheat this season. Charlie Burmester, an Auburn University Extension agronomist, says this year’s wheat yield is, of course, “the big unknown.” The weather this season has not been ideal for wheat growth.

Leonard Kuykendall, an Auburn University Extension regional agent working out of east-central Alabama, says, “We had enough cold weather for the wheat to reach the fertilization requirement to start heading. But we may have lost some of our nitrogen with the heavy rains we’ve had.”

The extremely wet season the area has had increases the chances that diseases like head scab, septoria and leaf rust will develop and adversely affect the wheat crop. In addition, wheat in Alabama has been damaged by insects such as aphids and the Hessian fly.

Burmester predicts there will be a significant drop-off in this year’s yield compared to last year’s 70 to 90 bushel-per-acre crop.

Although Kuykendall has observed good, average and poor wheat stands, he says it will be hard to follow the outstanding yields that were produced the past two years in Alabama. He estimates this season’s yield will be about 50 bushels per acre.

Similar predictions have been made for Florida and Georgia wheat. In Florida, wheat is grown mainly in the Panhandle area because there is simply not enough cold weather farther south.

“It has not been a terrible year, but it has not been an optimum year for wheat production,” says David Wright, a University of Florida Extension agronomist who works near Tallahassee. Only 15,000 acres of wheat were planted in Florida this season, but Wright estimates conditions have been such that wheat yields likely will be a little bit above the average of 40 bushels per acre.

Weather conditions seem to have been more severe in Georgia, according to Dewey Lee, a University of Georgia Extension small grains specialist. “It has been difficult for growers because at times, when they really needed to be out in the field, we had quite a bit of bad weather.”

That bad weather caused delayed field preparation, severe erosion and nutrient disturbance, which will have a negative effect on the 340,000 acres of wheat planted in the state. Lee says he would not be surprised if this year’s yields are lower than last year’s.

“For a grower, the only year is next year,” said Lee. Growers in the Southeast are certainly hoping for the wheat crop this year to be better than predicted, but they will nevertheless continue to fill their fields with new crops once the wheat is harvested.

In Alabama and Florida, soybeans seem to be growers’ crop of choice, for, according to Burmester, the “price of soybeans is high enough now that they’re willing to gamble planting soybeans behind wheat.” A smaller number of growers will plant cotton, corn, oats and rye.

In Georgia, Lee says many growers will be planting cotton behind their wheat.

Bob Goodman, an Auburn University economist, weighed in on the status of the 2009 wheat market. “The extremely high basis we saw last year with wheat does not seem to be reoccurring,” Goodman says.

Actual gains or losses cannot be determined until the wheat is sold, but currently, the wheat basis — the difference between the selling price on the Chicago Board of Trade and local markets — is $1.10 to $1.60. This does not bode well for Southeastern growers. Goodman continues,

“With the higher costs, and everything involved with high fertilizer prices and high feed prices we’re paying, without extremely high yields, farmers are not going to make any money.”

However, there are always good opportunities for growers to market their wheat. Goodman advises, “One of the best things is to find a niche,” and find it on your own so you will have less competition from other growers. Goodman’s other wheat marketing suggestions are storage until the selling price of wheat has improved, or forward contracting, in which growers may “sign a contract for future delivery at a specific price for a specific number of bushels.”

Long-term prospects for wheat depend on the world economy. Goodman says, “We grow 40 million acres of wheat in the United States: 2 to 2.5 billion bushels of wheat a year. We produce so much (wheat) we can’t possibly use it all here in the United States. We depend on our export markets for all of our commodities.” Goodman concludes, “If world demand picks up, the sky is the limit.”

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