By Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News, Kan.
Old-timers say a wheat plant has nine lives -- persevering through any ailment that Mother Nature dishes out.
But sometimes there is a point when even the resilient Kansas wheat crop can't take another plague.
If drought wasn't enough, Stanton County farmer Jim Sipes dug into the soil around a patch of wheat in March, trying to see why the crop looked like it was dying, despite a recent rain that brought his fields a little relief and greened the grass growing in the ditches.
"What most farmers thought they were seeing was just from the drought," said Sipes, whose family has a seed business near Manter. "In reality, it was army cutworms."
He's not the only one concerned. Already stressed by a multi-year drought, the western Kansas wheat crop has also been plagued by everything from winterkill and diseases like stripe rust to herbicide-resistant weeds and, now, worms.
Sipes said he found anywhere from four to nine cutworms per square foot.
"I did a quick calculation on my fields: That comes up to 28 million worms per 160 acres," he said. "We are taking about a major force eating on these fields."
He sprayed for them, but adds that cutworms typically have three generations throughout the summer. He won't spray again, however. With the crop so poor, it just doesn't pencil out.
Sipes expects to harvest just a quarter of his wheat crop.
"I have two fields that I have taken off the list to harvest," he said. "And there are a lot of fields (in Stanton County) that could be zeroed. Those who did not spray for army worms -- there is nothing green left."
Droughts have come and gone in Kansas -- especially in the western third of the state. Some, however, say this is the worst prolonged dry spell they've ever experienced.
The lack of rainfall moved into areas of Kansas in 2010 and has really never left. At present, more than 90 percent of Kansas is in some sort of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 26 percent of the state, largely in western and south-central Kansas, is listed as severe to extreme.
Sipes said he has received only 2 inches of rain this year -- with the last half-inch falling last week. Other areas also have watched rain come sparingly, with areas around Ulysses, Hays, Garden City and Ness City all recording roughly 2 inches since January.
The government already has paid out more than $2 million in crop insurance indemnities, according to the USDA's Risk Management Agency.
"Claims have been opened," said Justin Schrag, a crop insurance agent and Harvey County farmer. "The process actually started in February, to a degree. And the beginning of April freeze opened up some more claims, with hail claims following the last two weeks."
Schrag said he has trekked through Kansas wheat fields from Johnson to Emporia and north to Beloit and expects more claims to be filed this month. Significant drought stress is evident across southwest and north central Kansas.
"Out in western Kansas, they think if everything goes well between now to harvest, they'll harvest a third of the acres and hope to get enough for seed wheat. Same situation for some in the Lincoln, Kansas, area," he said.
Some areas are significantly worse than last year's dry spring, Schrag said, but he added that crop conditions are variable due to tillage and cropping practices, variety, planting date and spotty rains.
However, drought is just part of the issues taking a toll on wheat this year, said Schrag. He has seen freeze damage, aphids and stripe rust in the fields.
"They will find everything from complete losses to 5-bushel wheat to some that has some really good yields," he said of farmers in his territory, adding that some of the best wheat he has seen is in the Buhler area.
Bryce Vance, southwest territory manager for Dodge City-based Servi-Tech, said the chisel has been popular this year. Some areas are dry enough that strong winds have caused ground to blow, largely last year's drought-stricken wheat ground where the residue is poor.
He's not seeing army cutworms, but he said winterkill is an issue. In some fields, farmers are dealing with kochia, a weed that is becoming resistant to glyphosate herbicide.
Vance said he expects stripe rust to move into his west-central Kansas territory sometime next week. However, he added, "if it doesn't rain soon, the drought will take (the wheat) before the stripe rust does."
Farmers will, most likely, harvest a quarter to half a normal crop this year, he said. There are some pockets with better wheat. The Scott City area has received about 2.50 inches of rain since January.
Farmers are discouraged, he said, but yet most farmers have an eternal optimism.
"The resilience of a producer is something that is amazing," he said. "Even though things look bleak, their optimism stays high. It is one of those -- like a lot of guys say -- it could be worse. We are dry and things don't look their best, but we still have a decent chance of making a crop and hopefully the price will rebound and help guys lick some wounds."
On a recent April afternoon, Grant County Extension Agent Joe Leibbrandt walked through a field where the scars of drought are evident. The leaves are yellowing and the stand is short and sparse.
"We had pretty good hopes for the wheat in early March," he said.
That, however, has changed. Leibbrandt reiterates what others have said, that it's been a year of multiple plagues. He has seen stripe rust and cutworms. But the drought is overreaching.
In an area that receives just 18 inches of rain a year, it needs every drop it can get.
"It's been pretty tough around here," he said. "The past few years have been pretty hard."
However, he said, for farmers in western Kansas, "You have to have hope that someday things will change."