Winter wheat coming off fields, battered but not bad

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Farm Forum

Randy Neuhauser harvested his winter wheat on July 13, some of the first of the new crop to come off and one of several farmers running combines west of Fort Pierre and hauling the wheat in to town.

He’s a third generation farmer who says he takes some pride, as well as some guff from his neighbors, in doing things like his father and grandfather did.

Neuhauser was running his big John Deere machine over a field on the flats within sight of the Cheyenne River in northern Haakon County, 80 miles or more from Fort Pierre. Which is where his wheat was getting hauled Monday, Orie Bramblee driving a Vern Thorson truck pulling 1,250 bushels of wheat in a long trailer plus a pup trailer.

“The first field I did went a little over 40 (bushels an acre), the second one only made about 30 and this one is back up to about 40,” Neuhauser said from his combine. He figured to keep his crew harvesting until about 9 p.m., which might be tough on the fifth-straight such day, he said.

The yields aren’t quite average for his farm, but they’re not bad in a year bent to hurt wheat planted last fall, sleeping through chill, bare winter, then trying to get started again this dry spring.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week that South Dakota’s farmers will bin less than two-thirds as much winter wheat as last year, based on conditions as of July 1. Yields will be down 14 percent to 41 bushels an acre, USDA forecast and despite planting 1.3 million acres last fall to wheat, farmers will harvest only 960,000 acres, down 11 percent from 2014.

The dry fall, cold early winter without snow cover, then a dry, warm spring all worked to hurt the crop.

Many farmers dug up winter wheat fields this spring, figuring there was nothing worth saving.

Others didn’t apply spring nitrogen to boost growth and protein, figuring the poor potential of the crop didn’t justify the added expense, said Ruth Beck, extension agronomist in Pierre. “If it looks like a bad crop, they are not going to add nitrogen,” she said Monday.

But when the rains began coming in early May, winter wheat perked up more than many expected, while also bringing on some viral and fungal diseases, Beck said.

Just in the past few weeks, the crop seemed to recover more than a bit.

“I think it surprised a lot of us that it came on as good as it did,” Beck said. “There are some very nice fields of winter wheat around.”

The numbers bear it last minute improvements.

Winter wheat across the state was in better shape as of Sunday than it was a week earlier, USDA said on July 13 in its weekly crop progress survey of expert crop watchers: only 7 percent in very poor shape, compared with 10 percent a week earlier; 31 percent in good condition, up from 27 percent; while 1 percent of the crop moved from the “fair category” to the “good” category.

Just in time to be threshed by Neuhauser.

“I don’t no-till,” Neuhauser said of the farming style most farmers in central and western South Dakota have adopted the past decade, using chemicals to kill weeds and avoiding turning over the soil. Instead, he turns his field black before planting winter wheat in September, meaning the field lies “fallow,” for a year, in a kind of old-fashioned form of farming.

“I summer fallow. And this is a year when it pays off. I had a really good stand last fall and the fallow ground holds the moisture.”

But he also admits he tried growing winter wheat a year ago on some no-till acres. “And last year the no-till did just as well as the summer fallow, with probably less expense. But this year, the summer fallow (fields) held on to the moisture.”

Jason Stoeser, assistant manager at the Fort Pierre Dakota Mill & Grain, said he’s seeing winter wheat like Neuhauser’s mostly hitting the key standards: 12 percent protein and 60-pounds per bushel.

Some loads were under 10 percent protein, though, which hurts the price received by the farmer.

Moisture was as low as 12 percent on a load as of July 13, which is a good thing, meaning no storage problems that way or price discounts.

This is some of the earliest crop, well West River.

“We won’t see anything here for another week or 10 days,” said Tim Luken, manager of the Oahe Grain Corp. in Onida, 20 miles east of the Missouri, meaning new-crop wheat.

And when it does come, it’s not going to be a crop to write home about, he said.

“We probably lost 40 percent of the winter wheat here,” Lukens said. “Some of it still standing is only ankle-high, and thin stands.”

Plus, in this odd year it’s growing in three stages, with some already golden, some “green as grass,” some in-between, meaning it will be a long harvest season, Lukens said.

Meanwhile, the spring wheat, still weeks away from harvest, looks good, he said.

“We will be combining (wheat) in September,” Lukens said. “That’s the first time that has happened in many, many years.”