The cynics like to scoff that the Great Plains winter wheat crop dies a thousand deaths before setting new yield records, but the 2012 crop south of I-70 appears to be at risk of never getting started.
With the odds now favoring another La Nina this winter and farmers from Kansas to Texas saying they’ve never seen it drier, it looks like 2012 runs the risk of being another short crop year—further exacerbating USDA’s already gloomy outlook for wheat carryover.
With La Nina apparently boding a "double dip," NOAA foresees little relief for the drought area between now and fall dormancy period for winter wheat.
Which is not to say things won’t get better. While wheat farmers say they are reluctant to put high priced seed into a bone-dry seedbed sitting atop bone-dry subsoil sapped by the driest AND hottest 12 months on record in Texas, Oklahoma and important wheat areas in southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado, they say they probably will. With insurance rules requiring at least the effort, most say they will probably sow wheat, and for the best.
And, once that seed is there, as Brent Bean at the Amarillo Extension office says, the weather could change. “You can make a wheat crop in the spring if you can get it established.”
It’s that “if” that poses the problem. The drought monitor due out Thursday morning will show no relief from the region’s drought. Worse, the NOAA climatologists now say the chances of a second La Nina event this winter have climbed to more than 50-50. It’s that La Nina—the third strongest on record—that gets the blame for the last 12 months.
Just how hot and dry it has been in the Southern Plains is hard to overstate. Over half of the cotton planted in the Texas High Plains was abandoned before August began. David Gibson at Texas Corn Producers says his board meeting earlier this week found directors predicting perhaps half a normal corn crop. The evapotranspiration rate—imposed by both record heat and unusually high winds—at is running 35% above average at Lubbock. (Where they’ve officially measured .39 inch of moisture since June 1.)
Wheat seed will be going into some of the driest soil on record this fall. NOAA bases this map on the top 5 feet of soil.
Aaron Harries at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers says the drought that cut the wheat state’s normal yield this year shows no sign of abating there. Even producers with summer fallow ground—in much of western Kansas, they farm only half at a time—say they haven’t had enough moisture since the 2010 crop to support anything for 2012.
Gary McManus, Oklahoma state climatologist, spoke at the Oklahoma Farm Bureau’s “drought summit” this week and painted a gloomy picture—“a pathetic sight” in his words-- of wheat prospects there. Citing the “better than 50% chance of a new La Nina,” he said “another cycle of drought looks very possible, even likely.”
Over much the drought area, wheat is a dual purpose crop. Many producers plant in early September in order to get enough growth to support cattle through the winter. Then they harvest for grain.
That opportunity “is gone” for most producers, says Amarillo’s Bean. He says he is advising farmers to hold off until mid-September and hope to get an inch or so of moisture—possible even in a drought, this being the second wettest part of a South Plains year—to plant into.
He points out that if that rain comes, wheat planted into moisture would stand a much better chance of thriving than wheat that was dusted in before the rain.
He says even irrigation producers, with wells exhausted by keeping up with summer crops, are reluctant to sow wheat early. Not only must they consider that the soil profile is dry, but temperatures continue to run ahead of normal and “wheat is a cool season grass.”
Much of the Southern Plains would need 12 to 15 inches of rain to get back to normal soil moisture levels—in a region with 15-20 inch annual average rainfall.