'It's just been too hot': South Dakota wheat farmers should expect low yields in response to drought

Rebekah Tuchscherer
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Don Clark combines wheat in rural Elkton, S.D. Wednesday, July 11, 2012. In 2017, drought conditions have returned, especially in the north central part of the state.

(Emily Spartz / Argus Leader)

The driest June on record combined with a series of 90-degree temperature days early in the growing season has spelled trouble for South Dakota's wheat farmers.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, almost all of South Dakota is classified as moderate, severe or extreme in terms of drought conditions. Without proper growing conditions, yields and quality are expected to decrease dramatically for small grain growers across the state.

About 70% of the state's spring wheat crop is rated either poor or very poor, according to the USDA's most recent crop progress report. About 60% of winter wheat is in the same condition.

While some farmers that received timely rains will still be able to harvest their wheat for grain as planned, others have already decided to bale their crop instead as hay for cattle, according to Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission.

Still others will be unable to salvage a crop, abandon the wheat and write it off as a crop insurance claim.

More:Gov. Kristi Noem declares state of emergency in response to drought, allows haying of roadside grasses

Drought determines crop growth

Wheat straw on farmland in rural Menno, S.D.

Wheat is South Dakota's first major crop to pollinate in the spring, which means cool weather and rain in June are paramount for good yields, Sara Bauder, an agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University said.

"Because it's a cool season crop, we hope for moderate to cool temperatures," Bauder said of wheat pollination, which happens during June and determines ultimate crop yields. "It's just been too hot.

South Dakota wheat production is evenly split between two varieties, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers. While hard red spring wheat is grown in the north, hard red winter wheat is mostly grown in the south.

Winter wheat tends to be more hardy in drought since it's planted in the fall, Christopherson said. While spring wheat has to fight through late frosts to germinate, winter wheat is already more established by the time spring rolls around.

Both winter and spring wheat yields are forecast to be lower than the 2020 crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Spring wheat is expected to be hit the hardest, down 51% from 2020.

More:South Dakota crops are in survival mode enduring 90-degree temperatures and drought conditions

But long periods without rain still affect both varieties — wheat stems are shorter than normal and grain weights are low. However, wheat growers can expect few diseases, as the crop's main opponents need a wheat environment to flourish.

In other words, what wheat can be harvested for grain will be of good quality and high protein.

Other crops, such as corn and soybeans, could see similar yield decreases with continued hot and dry conditions, Jonathan Kleinjan an SDSU Extension agronomist said. But if August cools down and rain comes along, it could still be a good harvest.

"There's a lot of places that are still hurting," Kleinjan said. "It's going to be pretty hand to mouth from here on out, I'm afraid."

Rebekah Tuchscherer is an agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader. Reach her at (605)331-2315 or