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Mid-South outlook Enough dough in wheat?

Last fall, both Arkansas and Mississippi saw wheat acreage decline precipitously. Rainy weather kept many Delta wheat acres from being planted.

Will wheat acres jump back up? While other things will factor into decisions, the battle between needed cash flow and input costs will likely tell the tale.

“It often seems planting wheat is a last-minute decision for many producers,” said Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension wheat specialist. “(On Aug. 18), though, we had a producer meeting in Crittenden County and I spoke about wheat varieties and production. Farmers there indicated they'd plant wheat this year. That's encouraging and, barring bad weather during planting again, I'm sure we'll have more wheat acreage.”

When visiting producers around the state, Kelley hears much the same. “Many say not having a wheat crop this year meant they had a void in cash flow. Considering the rising input costs and dry conditions, this wasn't the year to have that void.”

But because nitrogen is now so expensive, any cash infusion from wheat may not be worth the cost.

“That's something every producer has to struggle with,” said Kelley. “There's not an easy answer. The way the fertilizer prices are moving, I don't think they're likely to come down — at least in the near future. That's definitely weighing on producers' minds.

“But I'll remind folks: last season, even with high inputs costs, Arkansas' wheat verification program fields still made money.”

Erick Larsen, Mississippi Extension wheat specialist, expects the state's wheat acreage will be “up some” from last year. “Our planted acreage last year was only 110,000 acres. That's less than half our historical average.”

However, Larsen doesn't expect any major move back to wheat.

“One factor that will influence wheat acres is farmers needing to generate some cash flow prior to next summer. Wheat acres typically increase when commodity prices are low. That's because input costs for wheat are normally less than for other crops.

“With nitrogen prices being so high — and likely to continue increasing — I don't know if that will hold true this time. Nowadays, it seems there's no escape from expensive inputs.”

Both specialists say stripe rust is the main concern on the disease front.

“Every year, we see some leaf rust,” said Kelley. “But over the last couple of years, leaf rust hasn't been the player stripe rust has.

“If you look at disease ratings of varieties in the Arkansas variety testing program, there are some obvious choices. The top yielders have very little incidence of stripe rust. The further down that list you look, the higher the stripe rust incidence. That shows how important this disease is now.”

Traditionally, stripe rust hasn't been a problem for Mississippi. But that's changed.

“Stripe rust is a big deal now,” said Larsen. “It's quickly become our most serious wheat disease. As well as causing problems in production fields, it's caused severe yield loss in susceptible varieties in our state variety trials.

“Producers definitely need to have some stripe rust resistance in any wheat they plant. That's the best way to deal with it.”

The success of early soybeans has been another impacting factor on wheat acreage.

“Early beans have been a tremendous boost for producers,” said Larsen. “Some are making 50- to 70-bushel early soybeans. That's helped push wheat/beans double-cropping to the side.”

Arkansas farmers have also had “pretty good luck with early beans over the last few years,” said Kelley. “This year, I hope that string of good luck continues. But right now some bean fields — dryland especially — don't look very good.”

Last fall, some 240,000 acres of wheat were planted in Arkansas. Earlier this summer, about 165,000 acres were harvested.

“In planted acres, compared to our 10-year average, we were down about 75 percent,” said Kelley. “Of the 240,000 acres planted, a lot were abandoned due to poor stands. The weather during planting last fall was awful — too much rain.”

However, much of the wheat that wasn't abandoned did exceptionally well.

“One big reason for that is the rains shut off from mid-April through harvest. That wasn't good for a lot of Arkansas' row crops, but it was good for the wheat. Dry springs usually mean good yields.”

Arkansas' state average yield was 55 bushels per acre. The state record is 56 bushels, “so the small acreage we had did well. In fields with good drainage that were taken care of, we saw some tremendous yields — 70, 80, 90 bushels per acre.

“In the wheat verification program, we ended up with only seven fields. But those fields averaged 70 bushels and that includes a field that made only 35 bushels. Throw that field out and the average would have been well above 70 bushels.”

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