The Grass is Dead, the Crops are Dying and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

I love mowing the yard at the farm. It gives me my mind a chance to wander, to think about things: the farm, the family, work. Some folks think of mowing as drudgery; I look at it as opportunity: the more I have to mow, the more it has rained and thus, increased potential for spring-planted crops to thrive.

This summer, I’ve done very little mowing. And that is bad news for the crops.

Flash back to Fall, 2011. Farmers typically buy seed and other crop inputs (fertilizer, herbicides) in the fall, planning the next year’s crop well in advance. I kind of had a hunch that 2012 was going to be a tough year – after a couple of years of dry weather in southern Kansas, I figured the northern half of the state was due for drought. So, I planned on planting more grain sorghum than normal. Grain sorghum is a feed grain used for both livestock feed and to produce ethanol. Grain sorghum prices are based on corn prices, because both crops have similar end-uses. However, grain sorghum typically withstands dry conditions better than corn.

Given the choice of planting soybeans or grain sorghum in the spring, I prefer soybeans, which provide tremendous weed control and crop rotation flexibility. Plus, soybeans generally offer more consistent profit potential than grain sorghum. However, soybeans require more precipitation to be profitable. Heeding my hunch that year could be a drought year, I chose to plant most of our acres to grain sorghum.

I don’t like to be wrong, but had I been wrong about my hunch, I would be ecstatic. Alas, I was not wrong. We are at least 10–inches below normal rainfall for the year. Our spring-planted crops look – and I’m being generous here – bad.  For a farmer, that is a sick feeling. 

Two caveats here: One, drought hammered southern Kansas last year, and those farmers have had no reprieve this year. Northern Kansas has had just one year of drought, so I don’t want to pretend that we’re in any worse shape than anyone else.  Two, I have an off-farm job, which certainly helps my family withstand the horrors of drought. Folks whose sole source of income is the crops in the field are likely at wits end.

We received a two-inch rain a month ago and I felt pretty optimistic about the chances for our grain sorghum and soybean crops. But the relentless heat (20 days of 100-plus degree temperatures in July) has simply devastated these parched fields.

Click here to watch the drought develop over the past year,
according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

If we were to get some rain this month, some of these grain sorghum and soybean crops could be salvaged.  Grain sorghum is remarkable in that it can sit and wait for rain. But if no rain comes, the heads don’t pop out and thus, there is no grain for a farmer to harvest. Soybeans are a bit different. They will continue to bloom and set pods as long as there is moisture in the soil, and the temperatures aren’t excessively hot. Still, even the hardier crops need rain.

In just about every conversation amongst farmers this summer, the phrase, “if we just get some rain…” has been uttered. When we talk about “some rain,” we’re talking about an inch or two, of nice, steady rainfall. These little 0.10″ showers do little more than settle the dust on country roads and increase the humidity.

Incidentally, many farmers say that soybean crops are only as good as the rains in August. As of this writing, there are 17 days left in the month…

Since this blog is called, “The Wheat Beat,” we need to talk about the 2013 wheat crop. Specifically, how does this summer’s drought affect the upcoming planting season?

There are a couple of ways. First, since there has been so little rain on cropland that will be planted to wheat, it’s more difficult to get that young crop established. Seeds have to be moist to sprout and in many cases, there is little to no moisture in the top few inches of soil. Second, many farmers plant wheat into soybean stubble after the soybeans are harvested. Same situation there: there will be little moisture in these fields to get the wheat crop sprouted and established. Wheat that gets established before winter sets in stands a lot better chance to yield well in the following summer than does wheat that sits for a while waiting for moisture.

On the other hand, a bunch of this state’s corn, soybean and milo are in bad shape (the Kansas Agricultural Statistics reports this is the worst the corn and beans have looked at this point in the season since 1985; milo since 2003).  A good share of these crops could be destroyed by fall, which would leave a bunch of ground open and possibly planted to wheat. In Fall, 2011 Kansas farmers planted 9 million acres of wheat – the largest total since 2006. We could see better than 10.5 million acres planted to wheat in Fall, 2011.

Let’s look back at history for a moment, however. The drought of 2012 has been compared to the drought of 1988. That fall, farmers planted 12.4 million acres – but abandoned 3.5 million acres due to the spill-over effects from that 1988 drought. That’s the highest abandonment since 1951.

According to the Kansas Ag Statistics “Wheat History” publication, the confluence of drought, mild winter temperatures followed by a freeze, more drought and heavy rains at harvest caused the crop to yield just 24 bushels per acre on average, and total 214 million bushels from 8.9 million harvest acres.

No one can predict whether 2012-13 will duplicate the wheat disaster of 1988-89. If history is any guide, however, we better hang on for a heck-uva roller coaster ride. I don’t know about you, but roller coasters make me nauseous.

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4 Responses to The Grass is Dead, the Crops are Dying and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

  1. I HATE roller coasters!!! And, Bill, I can understand the mowing thing. It’s sort of like being in the cab of a combine.

  2. Cosmo Kramer says:

    No mowing in Emporia…city commissioner put on a watering ban.

    Good stuff Bill. I hope we aren’t looking at a repeat of that year!

  3. pdqbach55 says:

    Thanks, Bill, for your insightful thoughts. I remember the droughts of the 80’s, especially the one in 1980 as I had just expanded acreage by cash renting a couple quarters. (I know, it dates me beyond your years) The wheat crop was below average and the row crops pretty much a total bust. We lost the following wheat crop due to dryness and winter kill. However, as farmers are eternal optimists, here’s one looking to put this year behind and looking forward to another new year.

  4. DrRexDexter says:

    There’s more to this than meets the eye. There’s growing evidence that those “Criss-cross spreading trails in the sky might be doing more than the “Climate modification” the Federal Government is finally-if reluctantly, admitting, and what about Small and Family Farms that are failing in the thousands? As the man said, “Follow the money…there ARE folks making piles of money out of all this misery: Are we having fun yet?

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