Drought imperils winter wheat crop in Kansas

The continued lack of rain and snow in Kansas is posing a serious threat to the winter wheat crop.

For now, 31 percent of the state’s crop is in poor or very poor condition, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics, but weather in coming months will tell whether that number grows.

“The majority of the wheat’s in pretty decent shape right now, but we’re pretty much living hand to mouth,” said Ken Wood about his farm in Chapman, Kan. “This year we’re going to just have to depend on rain. As of yet, it’s not very encouraging.”

Wood’s land received enough rain for the crop to sprout. Now the concern is whether there will be enough snow cover to insulate the crop from the cold and enough rain to sustain the crop after it begins to grow again in the spring.

But in many parts of the state, the crop had problems even sprouting because of dry conditions. Farmers who were able to get their wheat crop to sprout will face another pressure point when the crop comes out of dormancy late February or early March if the lack of precipitation continues.

“The crop didn’t have a good start,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. “Winter wheat really had a poor germination in many places.”

Winter wheat is planted in September and October . Bill Spiegel of the Kansas Wheat Commission likens the seed germination this fall to trying to plant grass in dry soil.

“A lot of farmers last fall planted their wheat in an already dry winter condition,” Spiegel said. “When you go out and plant grass in your yard, it needs to be moist enough for it to sprout and come up There just wasn’t enough moisture to really get it up and growing.”

Because of the continuing drought, the plants that sprouted grew more slowly and were smaller than usual, Spiegel said.

“If we don’t get more moisture between now and when they come out of dormancy, it could be really critical,” said Daryl Larson, a farmer in McPherson, Kan.

The poor growing conditions for the winter wheat have also posed a problem for livestock farmers. In the winter, some cattle farmers will use the winter wheat for grazing. But because the wheat crop is already in a precarious situation, that hasn’t been possible this year, said Kansas state climatologist Mary Knapp.

“With feed sources already tight, that’s one more difficulty they’re having to overcome,” Knapp said.