Wheat and More….or Less

Wheat farmers in the central and southern High Plains finally did get the 2018 wheat crop planted — after first being delayed by dry soils and then by rains that went on forever.

But by all standards, the newly emerged wheat crop would look great if it were Oct. 1. But it’s not. As I write this, it’s almost Dec. 1.

This wheat crop is not only little, it’s also late. So where is this road headed?

Here on our farm in Lane County, Kansas, we had some wheat planted before the rains started. That wheat really looks good. There are lots of tillers and a well-developed root system. But the bulk of the crop that was planted after a three-week delay is simply a ghost of what I think it should look like at this point in the fall. We have barely gotten two leaves and a very poorly developed root system — no crown whatsoever and no secondary roots.

Granted, we have a complete stand with the plants in firm moist soil. But cool soil temperatures have really slowed down development. For instance, in a normal year, wheat would easily be emerged by seven days after planting. This year, however, it took many fields two weeks and longer to get out of the ground. And it just seems to be sitting there.

So what could go wrong? Well, lots of things. Many western Kansas fields have very poor ground cover. That means an increased likelihood of wind erosion. Then there’s the chance for winterkill. And if you look at date-of-planting studies, the later the crop goes in, the lower the yield. Also, test weights start drifting lower. Plus, harvest dates are delayed, which exposes the crop to hot, dry winds during grain fill. Plants are also shorter at harvest meaning less crop residue. And with thinner, shorter stands, there is more potential for weeds to become a problem. And the longer the crop stays in the field, the greater the chance of developing problems with leaf or stripe rust, or with hail.

In short, there’s almost nothing good that comes with late planting dates. And it goes without saying that if something does go wrong with this crop, it could be on a massive scale. There are literally millions of acres of wheat in this boat.

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. K-State Extension wheat specialist emeritus Jim Shroyer says we’ve all seen late planted or late-emerged wheat turn in some tremendous yields. Case in point was the 2016 crop. We had a very mild winter followed by a very wet and cold spring — and the result was incredible yields. “Still, cases like that are more the exception than the rule.”

Jim says looking at KSU work over the years, if fall-planted wheat comes up after the first of the year, it’ll generally yield 40 to 60 percent of normal wheat. “Late-planted or late-emerging wheat won’t have as many productive tillers — that’s why you need to increase seeding rates in just such conditions.”

Jim says he’s not too worried about winter kill if the soil is moist, even with just a few tillers. “It would be nice if crown roots were established, however. Still, winterkill can happen.”

So how late is the crop? The bulk of western Kansas wheat, for instance, was planted in mid- to late October. Jim considers optimum planting dates for northwest Kansas to be Sept 10-25; for west-central Kansas, Sept 15-30; and for southwest Kansas, Sept 15-Oct 7.

John Holman at K-State's Garden City Experiment Station says he’d shift Jim’s optimum dates a week later - making optimum planting dates for west-central Kansas between Sept. 23 and Oct. 7.

John points out that one of the positive things about our current situation is that we did get the rains and, thus, were able to get good stands. “The main factor that most affects yield is October or fall-received precip — simply being able to get a stand.”

Nonetheless, delayed planting and delayed emergence certainly has an impact on yield. If wheat planting is delayed from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, heading date will be delayed by six days and yields will be cut by 23 percent. John says if wheat were planted in mid-November, he’d estimate yield loss to be 30 percent.

KSU Extension wheat specialist Romulo Lollato says not much Kansas wheat was planted before the October rains because it was so dry. “Maybe about 20 percent was planted before Oct. 1. By Oct. 15, we were still only 42 percent planted compared to 75 percent historically — making this one of the slowest starts ever.”

The next slowest pace for the date was about 69 percent planted in 1981 — over 35 years ago.

Romulo says in addition to later planting, wheat farmers have been facing cooler-than-normal temperatures, which has slowed down crop development. That means less fall growth and tillering.

Interestingly, while the 2018 wheat crop is off to a very slow and very late start, Romulo says it’s occurring at the same time that the U.S. and Kansas wheat acreage keeps dropping. While the 2017 Kansas wheat acreage was the smallest in 60 years and the second smallest in 100 years, Romulo expects the acreage decline to continue. “All this past summer no one was very excited about low wheat prices. In addition, soybean and sorghum harvest were delayed again because of the rains — so rather than plant wheat, many chose to harvest fall crops instead. Then rather than plant cheap and late wheat, I think many probably didn’t plant wheat at all and will plant spring crops next year. “

If recent trends in wheat planting continue, it’s expected that the US and Kansas wheat acreages will both shrink to the smallest planted acres in nearly 110 years — taking us back to what it was like in 1909 and 1910.

While all this is starting to get pretty interesting, it’s all occurring against a backdrop of having plenty of wheat in the bin already — something like an estimated 935 million bushels left over from the crop that was harvested this summer.

So what does all this mean? While low prices have always been the cure for low prices, my bet is the market is going to get a lot of help this go-round from the delayed planting. In short, I’m not betting big on all the little wheat that’s out there.

Vance Ehmke and his wife, Louise, grow certfied seed in Lane County, Kansas. To read more from Vance, visit www.kansasagland.com.