DIGHTON – It’s unheard of – especially in this part of the High Plains where drought has prevailed for several years.
Yet something incredible is happening in the wheat fields of Lane County.
“It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime deal – you just got to pinch yourself and realize it is real,” said Lane County farmer Vance Ehmke, who stood amid a thick carpet of stubble, watching custom cutters circle through his wheat crop.
“Seventy-five to 90 bushels an acre – we have had yields up there before, but it was never on the whole damn farm.”
Here, in the heart of the plains, wheat is surpassing all predictions.
In coming days, some western Kansas elevators could be bursting at the seams. For a few packed to the brim, wheat could go on the ground. The line of trucks ready to be dumped at elevators is getting longer.
Ehmke and his wife, Louise, are certified seed growers and have 35 to 40 bins on the farm. “And every one is going to be stuffed. We are going to end up hauling a hell of a lot of good seed wheat to the elevators because we don’t have a place to put it.”
One of Ehmke’s custom cutters – Nebraskan Zach Shaw – said he has four combines and has parked one by the edge of the field as his four semis and 1,400-bushel grain cart can’t keep up with the loads coming in from Ehmke’s fields.
He watched in amazement on Tuesday as he cut a field of hard red winter wheat. The yield monitor kept climbing, soaring above 100 bushels an acre, then 120 before hitting a high of 145.
In the end, this dryland parcel averaged 82 bushels an acre.
“I’ve cut a lot of irrigated wheat in Nebraska where we are from,” said Shaw. “And I’ve seen irrigated wheat that is not doing this well.”
The elements were perfect to produce a crop of almost monstrous size.
As Ehmke puts it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime union of plentiful rain at the right time, cool temperatures during filling, along with good management and top genetic varieties.
But even the not-so-good varieties are yielding excellently, said Shaw, adding test weights are averaging between 63 to 65 pounds a bushel – well above the 60-pound benchmark for No. 1-grade wheat. He predicted the excellent harvest stretching from southwest Kansas to Imperial, Nebraska. His best field during his stop in Oklahoma was 62 bushels an acre.
“A year like this will make any farmer look good,” he said. “You can’t screw up – 98 percent of it is luck.”
Jerald Kemmerer, general manager of Dodge City-based Pride Ag Resources, said farmers are reporting that on their summer fallow ground, wheat yields are reaching 100 bushels an acre.
“All the berries filled,” he said.
“I haven’t ever heard of it happening – not around here,” he added. “You might see some of that on the irrigation, but this year, some of the dryland will do just as well.”
The crop, it appears, is so bountiful that some farmers are superstitious – not wanting to talk of big yields and huge supplies because it might slip grain prices even lower than they have already have sunk. Landlords also might want more rent, too.
“Farmers buy the technology that provides the information that leads to his economic demise,” said Larned-area farmer Tom Giessel. “It just helps the traders.”
He admits in his own fields there “is a lot of good wheat.” But added not all farmers are seeing high bushels. It depends on the soil, what fields got timely rain and if there was hail.
Moreover, while this is harvest is unprecedented, “I’m not done. If I get a storm, I might harvest less than I did last year.”
Ehmke looks at it differently.
“We can’t only talk about things that make the market go up,” he said. “It’s an open marketplace, and the good news and the bad news all need to be in there. If we only talk about the bad news we’d destroy our credibility, we need to be honest and candid about it.”
Ron Suppes, who farms in Scott and Lane counties, said the line of semis at the elevators are starting to increase and the wait is getting longer.
Good yields have help offset the log jams. Suppes Farms is having an outstanding wheat crop. But he hasn’t seen yields nearing 90 – at least not yet.
“We’re doing better than average – 60 to 75 bushels an acre,” he said, adding, “We’ve heard some of those yields, we just haven’t seen them.”
Near the Rice County town of Frederick, cutter Bruce Pearson maneuvered a combine through a thick stand of wheat – a yield that he said was way better than his crop of 45 bushels an acre where he farms in Lyon County.
“It’s really, really, really good,” he said with a chuckle – not wanting to divulge his customer’s yields. “And with these prices, it needs to be really, really good.”
He used to make the trip north from Texas, but these days, the fields of Richard Wires is his only stop. He can’t seem to shake farming – or harvest, he said.
Pearson said he was among the thousands of farmers who went bankrupt in the 1980s. He worked at Wolf Creek in Coffey County for a number of years, then answered the wheat call – venturing into the custom cutting business while farming.
“It’s a disease,” he said of loving his profession. “But I like it.”
These days, he just makes the one stop in Rice County. Custom harvest laws, along with having a hard time getting workers, made him decide to stop.
For this stop, he musters up plenty of help. Pearson will spend the week or so with his wife, Cathy, who runs errands and brings meals to the field. Among the other crew members is granddaughters Whitney, 15, and Riley, 12; his daughter, Heather, son-in-law Brandon Rawlings, a few other relatives along with two teenagers and a retired truck driver.
His cousin, 15-year-old Ty Swisher, was driving a combine on this day – a job he’s done since the age of 12. His family farms near Lebo.
His crew returns every year because they love the harvest. For Pearson, it is a joy to cut good wheat. At night, he loves watching the combine lights spread across the field, the moon rising.
“When everything is running good – it is kind of like a symphony,” he said.
Rain has hit the harvest, which isn’t good, said Craig Bennett, general manager of Abbyville’s Farmers Cooperative. Showers a week ago dropped test weights below 60 pounds – the benchmark for No. 1-grade quality wheat. The downpour Thursday in central Kansas would most likely bring test weights lower. Moreover, more is in the forecast for the upcoming week.
It’s becoming a long, drawn-out harvest, he said.
On Wednesday evening, it wasn’t rain that stopped the Seltman family as they cut wheat near the eastern Ness County border. With this patch hit hard by disease and hail, they were making adjustments to the combine header because they were getting too much foreign material into the bin.
By then, it was nearing 7 p.m. Pam Seltman pulled the tailgate down on the pickup to create a buffet featuring sauerkraut and brats for the crew, which included her husband, Jeff, her children and brother-in-law, Brian.
Thankfully, Jeff Seltman said as he stood around with his family eating dinner, not all their fields are like this. “Some of it has been real good,” he said, adding they have had some fields average in the mid-70s.
They heard a neighbor made 90 bushels an acre, he said, but they haven’t hit anything that high, yet.
“We can raise pretty good wheat when it rains,” he said.
During one week or two period this spring, the farm recorded 8 inches of rain.
But now, he said, farmers just need a better price at the cooperative.
Today’s prices aren’t much different than they were when Vance and Louise Ehmke returned to Lane County to farm 40 years ago.
The price of wheat in Dighton on July 1, 1976 was $3.50 a bushel. By February the next year, wheat had fallen to $2.17 a bushel.
On Wednesday, Ehmke said the price at the local cooperative was $3.45. By Friday, it had fallen 20 cents.
The 2016 wheat crop is just that big.
Bins are bursting with wheat – not just domestically – but globally as the U.S. dollar continues to be strong, said custom cutter Shaw. Farmers needed the yields, but it won’t mean they will be buying a new pickup.
“No one is going to get rich on the deal – it isn’t going to heal anyone up,” Shaw said. “It is a salvation you have these high yields to offset the low prices.”
Farmers are expected to harvest more than 394 million bushels of wheat this year – 22 percent more than last year, accord to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
There is talk that a local hog producer will buy wheat for feed, said Ehmke. It’s also being considered by cattle feedlots – both of which would open up a different market.
“I hope to hell this wheat market holds where it is at and it doesn’t go any further down,” he said.
Ehmke added farmers have weathered a string of drought years, making such a bountiful harvest a blessing.
“If you turn back the clock two or three years – with these same varieties you were sweating blood hoping they would make 30,” Ehmke said.
On this 100-percent blue-sky day, Ehmke is giddy about the yields. He watched his other harvesting crew, led by Chad Brink of Minnesota, cut a large patch near his farmstead.
Brink said he has never cut anything like this – not in Kansas.
“It just pours into the tank,” he said, adding the combines are slowly rolling through the grain because it is so thick. “It’s just phenomenal.”
Ehmke said the yields could have been even better if rain would have fallen in May and early June.
“How can you screw with near perfection?” he said with a smile. “A little bit more rain and my god, who knows what we could have done.”
“Occasionally, over a 40-year period, you’ll have a field that does real well, 80 to 85 bushels an acre,” Ehmke said. “But as far as a county-wide yield experience – this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.”
For now, he and Louise are just relishing in a harvest.
“The greatest moments of your life are like all the rest in that they come, they happen and they go,” Ehmke said. “You can’t stop them. But you can sure enjoy them. You just got to be aware that they’re happening when they’re there. So we are trying to enjoy this regardless of the huge workload that comes with the best wheat crop of our careers.”