On the semi-arid High Plains of Kansas, Hamilton County farmer Mark Schwerdfeger doesn’t typically plant much dryland corn in his rotation.

It usually doesn’t make sense.

But with timely rains and a full moisture profile under the ground, Schwerdfeger and several other western Kansas farmers have taken a risk - sowing more acres this year to dryland corn.

“Farmers who have never grown any in their careers put in a thousand acres,” said Schwerdfeger.

Schwerdfeger’s acreage is up “100 percent,” he said, taking fields out of milo and wheat - traditional crops for this area - to make way for a crop that's usually an anomaly in Kansas.

The 2017 acreage of dryland corn -- corn not irrigated from water sources like the Ogallala -- won't be tabulated until later this winter, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service. But data from the past few years show increases in western Kansas. Southwest Kansas farmers planted 133 percent more dryland corn in 2016 than in 2015: 149,000 acres. West-central Kansas is up about 59 percent.

“Most years, it seems like a taboo crop. A few guys have done it in the past, but no one has really practiced it until the past few years,” Schwerdfeger said. “You go in understanding it will take a lot of moisture going in. It has always been a scary risk.”

Yet in an area where average rainfall is typically around 16 to 18 inches a year, the gamble is paying off. Some farmers have reported more than 26 inches of rainfall in Hamilton County, according to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

Schwerdfeger has cut a quarter section of dryland corn so far, and it has been above average. Neighbors are reporting yields of anywhere from 100 bushels an acre to around 120 bushels an acre.

“It seemed like the thing to do - putting cash flows together,” he said. “Doing a little more dryland corn seemed like a good risk to take to try to maximize income in this economy.”

Less milo

The boost in corn acres, as well as soybeans in other parts of the state, come at the expense of wheat and sorghum.

As the fall harvest season continues, several grain elevators say they are seeing less sorghum this fall as farmers look for alternatives in a sluggish farm economy. 

Kansas soybean acres are estimated at a record high 4.75 million acres, up 17 percent from last year, according to the agriculture statistics service. Kansas State University Assistant Professor Mykel Taylor noted this summer that farm income in 2016 was better in some areas because soybeans were profitable and yielded well.

Acres for both dryland and irrigated corn are up 20 percent in the past two years. Cotton acreage increased 75 percent this year after a year of good yields and profit.

Sorghum acres are down about 20 percent since 2015. In some areas of the state where sugarcane aphid infestations were worse in 2016 - including south-central Kansas - that percentage is bigger.

Mike Apfel, a hired hand cutting a field of corn for farmer CB Showalter last week, said the farm didn’t plant much milo this year, instead planting more soybeans. At Mid-Kansas Cooperative in Castleton, where Showalter farm was taking the crop, Location Manager Tim Lesslie said he expected to bin 10 percent of the milo that the elevator normally bins.

In the cooperative’s territory from McPherson to Hutchinson, there might be 40 percent of the normal milo acres, said Chris Thompson, a field marketer with MKC.

Many farmers planted more soybeans, he said. “It’s one of the few things that guys felt like could make them money.”

“The last couple of years, the sugarcane aphid has really hurt the milo crop,” Thompson said. “There isn’t a lot of great control options other than spraying.”

In this farm economy, some farmers didn't want the added expense, said Craig Bennett, general manager of Farmers Co-op Grain Co. based in Abbyville.

Bennett estimated farmers planted less than half the normal acres of milo in his territory.

“I just think this whole area is down milo acres,” Bennett said, adding. “Next year, that could change.”

Jerald Kemmerer, general manager at Dodge City-based Pride Ag Resources, said the cooperative’s elevators are seeing a bit of an increase in dryland corn acres. Some farmers sowed in dryland corn instead of dryland milo when they were planting last spring.

“It’s a combination of the sugarcane aphid, and we had some subsoil moisture to get the corn planted,” he said.

Dryland corn is “all over the place,” he said. “There are some pockets that are pretty decent - that is just how the rain fell.”

While milo acres are down some, “we still have some milo out there that looks phenomenal,” he said.

Research continues on sorghum and aphids, which includes management and seed varieties. And this year, MKC's Thompson noted, aphid infestations were low, which could mean more acreage planted to milo next year.

Reno County farmer Jenny Burgess said she and her husband, Geoff, didn't cut back on sorghum this year. Like some farmers, they stuck to their rotation.

Burgess said their farm didn't have much aphid issues last year or this year. They plant an older variety that seems more resistant.

She noted the wind didn't blow like it normally does to carry the aphids north into Kansas. The Burgesses also planted earlier.

There are also more beneficial bugs this year to combat aphids - such as lacewings and Asian beetles.

“There is less milo around, too,” Burgess said. “It’s kind of a perfect storm.”

More rain

As for Schwerdfeger, the rain keeps coming. He hasn’t been able to get in the field since he cut the quarter section of corn more than a week ago.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a profile this good in the past 10 years going into spring planting this year,” he said. “And we have every bit as good of profile going into this winter than we’ve ever had.”

With the moisture, it might work out to plant dryland corn again next year - taking several hundred acres out of wheat, as well as some acres out of milo. In western Kansas, wheat has been a tougher profit because of the low prices and the disease pressure farmers saw in June. In Hamilton County, it has been estimated that about half the wheat crop was affected by wheat streak mosaic virus.

What should have made 60 to 70 bushels an acre made 25 to 30, Schwerdfeger said.

The corn, however, “has really done well.

“It has been profitable so far, but any profit right now in this economy is great,” he said.