Kansas winter wheat crop looking worse, could be smallest harvest since 1996

It’s shaping up as another summer of discontent for Gary Millershaski.

The Kansas wheat farmer is in his third year of drought and things are not looking good this time around for his 3,500 acres of wheat. The question is not if but how much his harvest is going to get slammed. By one estimate, his harvest will be about half of his best ones.

“Our fields are burning up,” he said.

His concerns were confirmed Friday when the federal government said it expects the Kansas winter wheat crop will be the worst since 1996.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated a state harvest of 260 million acres, an 18 percent decline from last year. Average yields are estimated at 31 bushels per acre, down seven bushels from last year. Some parts of southwest Kansas are being hit much harder than the average.

Daniel O’Brien, extension agricultural economist for Kansas State University, calculates this year’s winter wheat crop could bring in $900 million less compared with good years. That figure doesn’t include any proceeds from crop insurance.

There’s still time for rain to improve the yield, but continued lack of moisture would make the harvest even worse than in the forecast. There’s already a growing number of acres that are being abandoned because the crop is too damaged to be worth harvesting.

Wheat prices have risen by about a third this year, helping reduce somewhat the economic impact on farmers. That also could put some pressure on food prices, but not significantly if only the higher price of wheat is passed along. A bushel of wheat provides enough flour for 70 to 90 one-pound loaves of bread. The rise in wheat prices so far would contribute an increase of about 2 cents per loaf.

Prices might also be restrained somewhat by an ample world wheat crop, despite the rough outlook in the U.S.

More than half of Kansas is currently classified as being in a drought. A majority of that is “extreme drought,” and a small southern fringe of the state is in “absolute drought, the worst category. Oklahoma has been harder hit, with a large swath of the state in absolute drought.

South central Kansas has just 14 percent of its top soil and 20 percent of the subsoil rated as having adequate moisture. The rest of central and western Kansas was also very dry.

The wheat crop statewide is rated 18 percent very poor, 29 percent poor, 36 perent fair, 16 percent good, and 1 percent excellent.

Alarms were already sounding after a recently completed tour by the Wheat Quality Council, based in Brighton, Colo. The annual tour brought in 75 analysts, farmers and grain traders. They made 587 stops at wheat fields in Kansas and also parts of Oklahoma and Nebraska

Tour participants also estimated, before the federal report, that Kansas was headed for its worst wheat harvest since 1996.

Members of the tour estimated the statewide yield at 33 bushels per acre. Actual wheat production in 2013 was 328 million bushels with a yield of 40 bushels per acre, both of which were down from 2012.

But what makes the wheat particularly worrisome, several said, is that yields could quickly go to zero in some fields if the weather heats up and more rain doesn’t fall.

Drought had stunted the height of the plants and substantially reduced potential yields. There’s a great deal of variation with some fields at 15 bushels per acre and some at 50. But clearly, they said, the southwest corner of Kansas and down into the Oklahoma panhandle are consistently the worst. The lack of moisture can be seen in the deep cracks in the ground running through some fields

Justin Gilpin, executive director of the Kansas Wheat Commission and a tour participant, said that while last year was also a disaster in much of western Kansas, the difference this year is that the drought damage has spread to central Kansas, lowering yields there.

In a stop at a wheat field just east of Newton, Gilpin noted how short the wheat stalks were.

Millershaski’s wheat farm is in a hard hit part of the state, 40 miles from Colorado and 80 miles from Oklahoma. An estimate in early May on part of his crop put the yield at 24 bushels per acres, half of what he got in his best years. The lack of moisture since then has probably knocked the yield down to 18 or 19 bushels.

He’s been in “conservation mode,” reducing expenses and not upgrading equipment. Crop insurance helps, but because of the premium cost he’s covered for about 70 percent of his losses.

“It’s enough to keep the carrot dangling in front of the donkey,” he said.

But the 10-day weather forecast for Lakin, Kan., the nearest town to his farm, has just one day when the probability of rain is 20 percent, the best chance in the period

“Sometimes you need to get paid for what you’re doing,” said Millershaski. This drought “is getting to be a killer.”

The Wichita Eagle and Associated Press contributed to this report.