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Mother Nature, input costs challenge nation's wheat farmers
BRADY, Mont. - Gary Gollehon has a national interest in wheat and keeps tabs on the nation's wheat crop through regular contact with wheat farmers in the Northern Plains and Midwest, sharing their challenges and concerns. Among those challenges and concerns are Mother Nature and the increased input costs. Drought, disease, wind and weeds have affected the nation's wheat crop from the very beginning of this spring.

Drought appeared to be an issue for Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas farmers in late March, said Gollehon, who traveled with his custom cutter through the Northern Plains and Midwest in late March to evaluate this year's wheat crop. However, not all the wheat showed signs of stress.

"The winter wheat north of Frederick (Okla.) seemed to be stressed for some reason or another," he said. "We didn't know if it was drought related or over-grazed or maybe they had just pulled the cattle, but that wheat seemed to be about the only bad looking wheat since Billings, Mont."

Midwestern farmers have started grazing their wheat to add another avenue for profit on the crop. "A lot of areas had cattle grazing and the farmers said that the winter wheat that was planted with the intentions of grazing usually had more fertilizer on than the wheat that did not have cattle on it," Gollehon explained. "The wheat owners were then paid by the pounds-of-gain per day, and the price varied on that as did the rate-of-gain per day, but the talk seemed to be in the three-pound-per-day area. No one came forth with the dollar amount for the gain, but they said there was good money in it," he said.

"Also for crop insurance reasons, the cattle would have to be off by a pre-determined day that was established by the crop insurance companies and varied from area to area," he continued. "If the winter wheat was too muddy, the farmers might pull the cattle for a while as they sink into the wheat and that is either referred to as 'pulling mud' or 'bogging.' Some of the farmers say that when this happens they push the wheat down deep into the ground and leave a hoof-sized divot."

The droughty conditions improved in April and May for several states. However, these months brought cooler than normal temperatures with the moisture relief, which caused plant growth to slow and increased weed populations and disease opportunities for several states.

Weeds also created some problems for the wheat farmers as spring wore on with cooler temperatures than normal and some moisture in selected areas, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

Volunteer rye and wild oats gave some Oklahoma and Texas farmers a few headaches earlier this spring. However, the farmers' focus changed from weeds to drought and disease by the first of May, a NASS report indicated.

A May 1 report indicated Texas wheat was showing signs of stress related to rust and other plant diseases, as well as hail and drought. However, the report stated the Texas wheat crop was rated at 75 percent of normal, compared to 69 percent last year.

The Oklahoma wheat crop is also suffering from droughty conditions, as this spring has been the third driest since 1921. "Soil moisture has continued to decline with only 29 percent of the topsoil moisture rated as adequate," NASS reported. "Subsoil moisture was 12 percent very short, 36 percent short and 52 percent adequate."

Eighty percent of the Oklahoma winter wheat crop has headed, causing some concern that the current dry conditions make take a toll on the wheat's head-filling capabilities. This could result in reduced yields or even field abandonment, the agency said. "Several producers baled their wheat for hay," NASS reported. "Sixteen percent of the wheat was in the soft dough stage, compared to 10 percent normally."

Freezing temperatures in late April and early May damaged crops in the Midwestern and Northern Plains states. Sugar beet crops were damaged by the cold temperatures in several areas and had to be replanted.

South Dakota's alfalfa and small grains crops were also affected by the below-normal temperatures. Eighteen percent of South Dakota's winter wheat crop has entered the boot stage, while spring wheat planting is nearly complete with 60 percent emergence, ahead of the five-year average's 39 percent, according to the NASS. Eighty percent of South Dakota's winter wheat was rated earlier this month as being in good to excellent condition.

Preliminary freeze damage for Kansas wheat indicated 73 percent of the state's crop hadn't been damaged, 19 percent had light damage, seven percent had moderate damage and one percent suffered severe damage from the freezing temperatures the crop experienced in early May.

This year's wheat crop in Kansas has developed slower than previous years as only 12 percent has headed compared to 25 percent last year and 17 percent in the five-year average, according to a NASS report. More than half of the Kansas wheat crop was in good condition in May, while 26 percent was fair and 17 percent in excellent condition, the report said.

Montana's winter wheat crop was also hindered by the cool temperatures, as was the Wyoming winter wheat crop. However, April showers and snows improved the state's water resources, which in turn, helped improve the winter wheat conditions. Forty-five percent of the Wyoming winter wheat crop was ranked as in good to excellent condition, 26 percent more than last year.

Both Montana and Wyoming farmers are wrapping up their spring grain planting. Sixty-six percent of Montana's farmers are well underway in their spring planting, while 22 percent started at the first of May and 12 percent were waiting to start their spring tillage.

Wyoming farmers are running a bit behind schedule this year, as only 76 percent of the state's barley crop has been planted, compared to last year's 83 percent and the five-year average of 81 percent; and 43 percent of the spring wheat crop has been planted compared to last year's 70 percent and the five-year average of 51 percent. Two percent of the state's winter wheat crop has jointed, which is way behind last year's 22 percent and the five-year average 20 percent.

Wind has also caused its fair share of damage to the nation's wheat crop.

In mid-April, Gollehon reported Vernon, Texas, experienced higher temperatures, which didn't hurt the crops, but the wind that accompanied the warmer temperatures damaged the crop. "The wind has been brutal and is sapping the yield out of the crops," he said. "The crops are headed in that area."

Input costs and drought were the top issues discussed in farmer coffee groups throughout the Northern Plains and Midwest this spring, said Gollehon, who got in on the coffee conversation during his wheat evaluation trip.

"The trip was a good one, but the message was the same whether in Montana or Texas or Colorado: Agriculture cannot continue with the high input costs and the 1950 costs that we are receiving for our goods," he said. Gollehon added if this doesn't change, he believes the consumer is going to find the reliability of their food source may be jeopardized to the point of becoming "like our European neighbors ... empty grocery store shelves or the possibility of food becoming a not-so-cheap 'good buy' we are all told we have the luxury of having."
MGR Archive 7.6.2005
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