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Mississippi wheat harvest begins on expanded acreage

Mississippi’s farmers are beginning the 2008 harvest of 450,000 acres of wheat, the most grown in the state in almost two decades.

In 1990, the state had 600,000 acres of winter wheat, but it was a drastically different time then. Wheat yields averaged 30 bushels per acre, and the 1990 price averaged $3.07 per bushel. At the same time, farm diesel averaged 94 cents per gallon, and urea nitrogen fertilize was $192 per ton.

In 2008, the five-year yield average is just over 53 bushels per acre, and the current crop’s price is running around $5.25 per bushel. But before people think of wheat as a pot of gold, they should remember that all cost-of-production factors have skyrocketed in recent years. For example, diesel is running $3.62 per gallon, and urea nitrogen fertilizer is $552 per ton.

“These conditions are typical of commodity markets,” said John Anderson, agricultural economist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service. “When prices are high, input costs go up.”

Anderson said wheat growers have seen historically strong prices since last fall, and some even booked their crops when prices were in the $10-per-bushel range.

Erick Larson, Extension small grains specialist, said good management and productive soils should provide strong wheat yields despite less-than-ideal weather conditions unless fields drained poorly or additional storms complicate harvest. Mississippi fields averaged a record 59 bushels per acre in 2006 and then 56 bushels per acre in 2007.

“Recent storms have caused some wheat to lodge, and that can cause harvesting problems and reduce grain quality as well,” he said. “South Mississippi had significant freeze damage this spring. Some fields were abandoned immediately and others have significant yield losses.”

Larson said farmers battled more than normal disease pressure in wheat because of weather conditions.

“We had very wet conditions from February until harvest. That challenged timing for pesticide applications and caused wheat to be stunted in poorly drained fields,” Larson said.

Warren County Extension director John Coccaro said about 25 percent of the county’s 4,000 acres of wheat was lost to spring flood waters that are only now beginning to subside.

“We’ve watched this water forever. It dropped some, then rains came and it went back up,” Coccaro said. “After that second bump up, it just never changed. It’s been dropping very, very slowly, and farmers are just now getting back into some areas.”

Coccaro said most of the 1,000 acres that flooded will go into soybeans soon. The once-feared shortage of soybean seed has not materialized.

“It’s a good situation for soybeans. There is no better burndown than water sitting on a field for a couple of months. The land has no weeds and no insects, plus soil nutrients have increased and there’s a full charge of soil moisture,” he said.

The only challenge that could slip up on soybean growers, who are out of practice with flooded fields in recent years, is the need for rhizobium bacteria in the soil. Growers need to add an inoculum on the seed to help rebuild rhizobium bacteria levels depleted by long-standing flood waters.

“This bacterium allows plants to convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form the plant can use,” Coccaro said. “Under normal field conditions, sufficient amounts of the rhizobium bacteria remain in the soil from year to year for plants to use, but floodwaters deprive the bacteria of oxygen and kill it. Failure to have adequate rhizobium bacteria in the soil will cause plants to be weak and spindly.

“Farmers may even want to double up on the inoculum this year,” Coccaro said.

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