The end of the line?

In some areas of western Kansas, the winter wheat crop continues to show signs of stress. Constant windy conditions and a lack of snowfall or other moisture is turning the crop bluish brown in color.

Hamilton County crop and stockman Steven Hines said the winds have been terrible.

"Gusts from 40 to 60 mph seem to sweep through our country nearly every other day," Hines said. "Temperatures have been one roller coaster ride after another. For a few days, it's 50 or 60 degrees, then we'll experience a cold snap in the teens or near zero."

How well the wheat stands up depends on how well the crop is rooted, Hines said. It could winter kill if it isn't rooted firmly in the soil. The ground will heave until it pulls the roots lose and the wheat will die.

"Most of ours is pretty well-rooted down with the moisture we received in August and September," the southwestern Kansas farmer said. "That drink of water started our wheat crop with a bang."

Unfortunately, the moisture ranging from 1 to 3 inches in August and 0.5 to 4 inches in September wasn't enough to provide much needed subsoil moisture. Until more moisture arrives, this year's wheat crop is living on borrowed time.

February can be a really good month, if wet snows blanket the crop. The ground generally is thawed enough so the snow melts and the moisture insulates the wheat.

On the other hand, if moisture continues to be scarce, this does not bode well for the young crop.

Blowing soil has been another problem this winter. When this happens, farmers chisel their ground in an attempt to keep their fields from blowing. Hines, his two brothers and nephew chiseled 240 acres of their winter wheat ground recently.

"There's not enough cover on the ground to keep the soil from moving when it's dry like this," Hines said. "We had to run pretty deep with the chisel to pull up any clods, but I feel good about what we accomplished."

Certain regions of western Kansas have been in some degree of drought since 2007. The Hines family farm didn't harvest any fall crops to speak of last year. The 2013 wheat crop was a total bust.

"We harvested 1,246 bushels from 2,200 acres planted," Hines said. "Last year was the first time in 40 years I had to buy wheat seed to plant back in the ground."

Hines hopes February will bring snow and spring rains. He understands if his wheat receives moisture at the right time, his region of the state can raise a tremendous crop on 10 to 12 inches of moisture -- if temperatures don't get too hot.

Because of the sparse fall harvest, the Hines family kept its entire milo crop to use for cattle feed. The grain shortfall hit them hard in the pocketbook.

The extended drought also has resulted in downsizing their momma cow herd.

"We're down between 50 to 75 head," Hines said. "Any cows that haven't produced calves were sold, and we haven't replaced them."

Other Kansas cattlemen have been forced to liquidate or down-size their herds as well. Hines fears cattlemen in his region will not restock their herds when, and if, better times return.

"A lot of the guys that sold their herds are older, and some will retire or find it too difficult to take a chance with cattle again," he said.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.