Kansas wheat dismal in west, bountiful elsewhere

Farm Forum

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) – Wheat grower Randy Fritzemeier slowly drove his combine on June 25 over thick stands of winter wheat and counted himself a lot more fortunate than his neighbors out in far western Kansas where a lingering drought has decimated crops.

But here on his Stafford farm, located just 30 miles west of Hutchinson in central Kansas, this season’s crop is better than average, he said in a telephone interview from the cab of his combine. He began cutting his 1,300 acres of winter wheat on June 21, and his test weights have been running between 60 and 64 pounds per bushel – far better than the 60-pound benchmark for top quality wheat.

When asked about what kind of yields he was getting, Fritzemeier hesitated.

“I almost hate to say because it is so good,” he replied. “I am afraid it might make the market drop.”

Prodded for a number, he disclosed he has been getting between 50 and 60 bushels an acre. On an average year, he usually brings in 40 bushels an acre.

Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported on June 24 that 8 percent of the state’s winter wheat crop has been cut. The agency said 45 percent of the Kansas wheat crop was in poor to very poor condition. The trade group Kansas Wheat says harvest activity has spread as far north as Hays and as far west as Scott City. Early indications are that the harvest has been coming in as good – and as bad – as had been anticipated, depending on where the rain had fallen.

Just 160 miles west of Fritzemeier’s central Kansas farm, grower Gary Millershaski was getting ready on June 25 to begin cutting for the first time this season what he had left of the 2,800 acres of winter wheat he had planted near Lakin in drought-stricken southwest Kansas. His wheat crop is so poor he has already abandoned 360 acres of it and has low expectations on yields for what was left.

“I am going to call myself lucky if I can end up with a 15 to 20 bushel (per acre) average,” Millershaski said. “I am not helping the state’s average any at all.”

But he still said he felt fortunate because farmers further west and south of him were abandoning between 30 and 40 percent of their fields, or worse.

Subsoil moisture levels are short to very short across 52 percent of the Kansas, but in arid southwest Kansas 96 percent of the land falls into that category, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.

In a typical season, Millershaski has three combines of his own plus a couple of custom harvesters cutting his fields.

“This year, due to the poor performance of the crop, we are going to cut every acre ourselves and hopefully that will save me between $5 and $7 an acre,” he said. “I don’t know if it will because it still costs you. It costs to go across the ground whether you own the machine or you pay somebody to do it.”

For custom harvesters like Tracy Zeorian of Manley, Neb., the widespread drought has meant far fewer acres to cut. She and her husband are cutting in Oklahoma and expect to move into Kansas soon. The nation’s custom cutters, who follow the ripening crops from Texas to the Northern Plains each year, have already moved into the Kiowa area in south-central Kansas and are beginning to move into central Kansas now, she said.

“Probably within the next week or two you could quite possibly see a lot of harvesters just sitting,” Zeorian said. “I know I have heard some say they are thinking even about going back home for a while until that northern route is ready. It is a tough year for a harvester.”