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Some farmers expecting harvest to start in May

SALINA, Kan. (AP) — Farmers in north-central Kansas might be planting soybeans this time of year, seeding gardens, even mailing graduation announcements — anything but greasing combines.
This year it’s different, maybe even unprecedented.
A balmy late winter and spring startled the wheat crop into an early awakening, and now has folks in the grain game gearing for a wheat harvest two or more weeks sooner than normal.
Most crops are ripe and ready by mid-June, but this season, some are predicting that combines could roll into Saline County during the last week of May, or no later than the first week of June.
In more than 70 years of farming — first as a boy in McPherson County and now in western Saline County — Quenten Swenson cannot recall harvesting wheat before Memorial Day.
“It’ll be very possibly during the last week in May, depending on the weather,” said Swenson, 90. He anticipates an “above-average crop as long as we don’t get any hail.”
Farther south in Oklahoma and Texas, the annual campaign has begun.
“We cut six semi loads (Friday), which is a good start,” said Jim Deibert, a custom harvester from Colby, who was working near Vernon, in north-central Texas.
He normally begins harvest there between May 18 and 20.
The grain is carrying 10 to 12 percent moisture, dry enough to store in an elevator, testing at 58 1/2 to 60 pounds a bushel — the industry standard is 60 — and yielding from 40 to 60 bushels to the acre, he said.
“It’s a pleasant surprise,” Deibert said. “Last year, there were a whole lot of people (in Texas and Oklahoma) who had nothing to cut.”
Soon the collective whir of expensive reaping machines will begin their annual migration north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Some crews cross into Canada. Still others dip into Arizona or continue west to California, said Pam Shmidl, operations manager for the U.S. Custom Harvesters Association, based in Hutchinson.
Fast-ripening wheat has caused many of the 600 or more members to begin their campaigns early, she said.
“There’s a bunch of them who are scrambling south,” Shmidl said early last week. The early dates are causing a crunch for some like Deibert, who hires foreign workers, and others whose crews include students who have yet to take final exams.
“Some of the guys are still waiting on their help to arrive. Nobody was prepared. Some of them were caught by surprise,” she said.
Slowing the process are foreign workers waiting for the necessary visas to work in the United States, and those who need to renew or complete commercial driver’s licenses. Driver’s license examination offices in Kansas are closed for an equipment upgrade.
The shutdown “has got all sorts of things in turmoil,” Shmidl said.
Jeff Smith, of Windom in southwestern McPherson County, has never seen wheat head out in April, which caused many farmers to fear a frost similar to the one that socked the crop in 2007.
While there were likely some spots of fields affected by frost, north-central Kansas dodged widespread devastation.
“I just see lots of beautiful green fields of wheat with big heads on it. If it fills to its capability, we could have a great harvest,” Smith said. “It’s a giant crapshoot when we put it in the ground in the fall.”
The wheat may look good now, but a lot could happen.
“One hailstorm. One bad storm. There are so many things that could happen between now and harvest,” Smith said. “You try not to think about it.”
At Cargill Ag Horizons grain terminal just west of Salina, the Friday price closed at $5.92 a bushel, down 6 cents from the day before. On the same day in 2011, the price was at $8.08 a bushel at both Cargill and Scoular grain terminal on the eastern edge of town.
Tom Tunnell began predicting “a huge wheat crop” in Kansas as early as December that could produce 450 million bushels.
“I’m gonna be right or close to it,” said Tunnell, the president and CEO of the Kansas Grain and Feed Association.
Thanks to a sharp increase in available storage space in Kansas, approaching 1 billion bushels, “space will not be a problem for wheat harvest,” he said. “There has been a tremendous increase in storage in the last five years, a building boom like we haven’t seen since the ‘50s.”
The long range concern is space for fall crops, he said.
“Certainly grain sorghum and some corn will be (piled) outside, depending on the area,” Tunnell said. “You could see some wheat on the ground.”
Some areas around Delphos were hammered by a late April hailstorm, which will minimize yield potential, said Dave Studebaker, general manager of the Delphos Co-op Association.
“On the stuff that escaped (hail damage), I would agree with the crop tour. If we don’t cut 55-bushel wheat, something’s wrong,” Studebaker said. “That’s almost 15 bushels more than normal.”
Despite being 34 miles north of Salina, he said, “We’re gonna see some wheat on Memorial Day. I’ve got one farmer who plants extra early. Unless something changes, my guess is he’ll be cutting wheat.”