For the 2017 wheat crop, Kansas farmers planted the smallest acreage in 60 years and the second smallest in 100 years. Can it get any worse? Maybe not, but I don't know if it can get much better either.
Last fall, Kansas farmers planted a little over 7 million acres of wheat. And honestly, I don't know that we're going to see much improvement in that number as we get ready to plant the 2018 crop.
The biggest problem, of course, is price. With local wheat prices at about $3.15 a bushel, there's clearly no profit in growing the crop. Thus, many farmers have been switching to other crops including corn, grain sorghum and soybeans. In addition, a lot of others have switched to triticale for grazeout, hay or silage. Several I've talked with say they have dropped wheat altogether and are devoting those acres to forage production for their cattle herds.
And while some are planting wheat, some of that is scheduled for grazeout rather than grain. One north-central Kansas farmer I talked with said he has not grown wheat for the past two to three years. Instead, he's planting more summer row crops citing the low price of wheat for the shift. He said he doesn't like paying for inputs such as foliar fungicides for leaf or stripe rust. "It would be better if we had natural resistance to these diseases."
Other things dragging on the wheat outlook include a widespread and severe wheat streak mosaic virus, which crippled yields in many areas. Some farmers are expecting more of the same this fall and are, thus, reluctant to plant. Some are considering high-yield triticale to be sold as a feedgrain. Triticale is either extremely resistant or just flat immune to WSMV.
Other farmers just frankly don't know what to do.
This past year a negligent neighbor's uncontrolled volunteer wheat lead to a severe WSMV infection on another neighbor's wheat and ultimately killed that neighbor's entire field. We also had an adjoining field that was infected, which had disastrous yields and sub-50 pound test weights. Yet right between those severely injured wheat fields we had a field of triticale that made 65 bushels per acre.
The outlook for wheat in many areas is not all that great either for other reasons. Many farmers in central Kansas are really hurting for moisture because of an enduring drought.
And out here in western Kansas, because of a very wet spring, a significant number of farmers chose to plant either corn or sorghum on what normally would have been fallow acres that would have been planted to wheat this fall. Much of this land was in a row crop the year before but with good subsoil moisture, they chose to plant a second row crop. While yields of the second row crop are normally much reduced and rates of crop failure are sharply higher, the ability to insure the second crop for the same yields and same premium no doubt helped encourage farmers to take the risk.
Level playing field? Let the market decide? Hardly. Policy is still influencing such things as crop choice. And it’s not helping the wheat industry.
What happens to those acres after harvest this fall remains to be seen. Now that they are out of rotation, will some farmers chose to plant double crop dryland wheat on those same acres? If not, the Kansas wheat acreage will again suffer. But again the ability to insure double-crop wheat as continuous wheat may encourage some to take the risk.
To make matters worse, some of our end users are not too happy with the quality of wheat we farmers are producing. For instance, low protein wheat and what they call "feed wheats"— varieties with high yield and low milling and baking properties — are forcing our customers to buy high protein, hard red spring wheats from the Dakotas, for instance, to beef up the quality of Kansas-grown wheat. Ultimately, that hurts the demand for our wheat — and the acreage.
Also, because many in the Kansas commercial grain industry ignore the protein market and do not pay premiums for quality wheat, this opportunity for adding to farmer-received price is just not available unless farmers store on the farm and then sell direct to regional elevators or direct to the mills. In the past several years those premiums could have added anywhere from 50 cents a bushel to $2 a bushel — and would have gotten the farmer that much closer to breakeven prices.
So at the end of the day with incredibly low wheat acreages being planted in Kansas — the Wheat State — is our industry at a crossroads and will it continue to lose acres to more profitable crops? Or will low prices cure low prices — we'll just shift to other crops until supplies dry up and prices recover to profitable levels? Stay tuned.