Sure, machinery is bigger and seed varieties better – but as Reno County farmer Derek Zongker knows, some things are the same, generation after generation.
“Wheat will make a liar out of everybody,” he said with a chuckle of the crop that, even on its last leg, seems to survive through most ailments Mother Nature dishes it.
Another old farm adage – when the wheat begins to head out, it is six weeks to harvest.
If that is the case, said Zongker, the annual harvest will be, at least, two weeks early.
Wheat began heading out in mid-April in his fields he manages in Reno County. On Thursday, he estimated much of the ground was about 40 percent headed.
“Six weeks – that is the rule of thumb – that is what the old farmers say,” he said, noting that means wheat harvest should begin in late May or early June.
Early harvest across Kansas
It’s the same scenario across much of Kansas. At OK Co-op Grain at Kiowa – the Barber County town where the state harvest typically starts – Assistant Manager Brett Courson estimated harvest kicking off Memorial Day weekend.
In a normal year, it would begin the second week of June. But it has been a long time since harvest has been normal, he added.
The quicker maturity has been largely due to the drier, warmer winter and spring, said Gary Cramer, agronomist in charge at the South Central Kansas Experiment Field.
According to the National Weather Service, the area has received just half of its average rainfall during the first three months of the year. Other areas of the state are far worse.
Courson noted the wheat was beginning to turn blue from the stress. Some of the leaves were beginning to roll back from the lack of moisture. And with the warmer winter, some of the crops, including alfalfa, didn’t go dormant.
February was seven degrees warmer than the normal average, according to the weather service.
“I think we started spring in February,” said Zongker, adding, “It has been dry enough that (the wheat) decided to go into survival mode.”
A year ago at this time, Zongker was praying for rain after another dry spring was beginning to zip the life out of the wheat.
This spring mirrored last year’s. With predictions of rain seeming to fall apart, the wheat Zongker manages was beginning to go backward.
Last week, 95 percent of the state was either abnormally dry or in a moderate drought.
Rain came over the weekend of April 16. Some areas of southwest Kansas received about 5 inches of rainfall. Zongker said he had around 2 inches.
“It will help us produce something,” Zongker said. “It might not live up to full potential.”
More will be known on the quality and quantity of this year’s wheat crop next week – as wheat leaders tour fields across the state as part of the Wheat Quality Council’s hard winter wheat tour through Kansas fields May 2-5, Cramer said. But a lot can change between now and harvest.
“We still have a chance for a good harvest,” he said. “If we have a nice, long fill period with rain and the right temperatures – not getting to hot in flowering – then we have an opportunity for a good wheat harvest.”
For now, farmers are trying to apply fungicide to protect from stripe rust, Cramer said. But with the ground wet, it has been hard for some to get into the fields before the end of the application stage.
“These conditions we have today are perfect for the development or intensification of leaf rust and stripe rust infections,” said Cramer. “It is warm, moist and the canopy is high.”
Courson said their area has some rust, too, which spreads in the wind.
But without the moisture – roughly 2 inches that fell last weekend – there might not have been much of a harvest.
“This was a harvest-saving rain,” he said, adding the wheat “was in desperate need of rain. We’ll be able to cut something.”