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Snow, disease hit wheat crop as elevators work to move bushels from last year

Justin Gilpin
Kansas Wheat

But the electricity is out at his Stanton County farm, where at least 14 inches of snow blankets his wheat fields.

Amid a slumping farm economy, it might seem like a disaster with harvest just weeks away. But Sipes has seen wheat weather many calamities.

“I never count wheat out,” he said.

It will be a week to 10 days before western Kansas farmers know the outcome of the weekend snowstorm, which closed highways and canceled schools.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture is estimating at least 40 percent of the state’s wheat crop has some type of damage from the snowstorm.

Sipes, however, is optimistic. Ground temperatures were 60 degrees before the mercury dropped. If the crop is lodged and stems didn’t break, it might stand back up. Moreover, the snow came wet, leaving valuable moisture for the semi-arid landscape.

Yet snow is just one thing officials will encounter as they put on their boots and make a loop across Kansas in an effort to get an accurate picture of this year’s wheat crop. Starting today, 90 grain traders, commodity groups, agronomists and others will take to the wheat fields as part of the annual Wheat Quality Council’s Hard Winter Wheat Tour.

They will travel a three-day route from Manhattan to Colby, then to Wichita and back to Manhattan – pulling samples along the way.

Scouts will also look for viral diseases like stripe rust and wheat streak mosaic, largely caused by farmers not controlling their volunteer wheat. Leoti farmer Rick Horton said some farmers in his area have already turned fields into insurance because of the significant damage.

It will be, perhaps, the first time the group has encountered snow along the way. The snow did push up wheat prices Monday. At Garden City Co-op, wheat was around $3.61 a bushel. But prices are still at lower levels as a glut of grain – visible along Kansas’ roadsides – signals there still is plenty of supply in the world market.

Sipes, a veteran farmer, has said he’s never seen economic conditions like these. Nor have his neighbors, some of whom went through the 1980s farm crisis. The cost of production is so much higher today, he said.

“Some made money in the 1980s and now can’t make anything,” said Sipes, adding, “this might be another nail in the coffin.”

Grain on ground

Kansas farmers reacted to the market, planting 7.5 million acres of wheat last fall – the lowest acreage in a century.

No matter, there is still plenty of wheat in the world as harvest nears.

“It’s going to take some time to dig out of this pile, so to speak,” said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chad Bontrager.

The department has been visiting with international groups, including officials from Mexico, looking for ways to grow demand for Kansas wheat.

“At the same time, we know the world only needs so much,” said Bontrager.

Last fall, the state approved ground storage for 43.2 million bushels of milo, 18.9 million bushels of corn and 5.3 million bushels of wheat. That’s much higher than normal, Bontrager said, adding that state-licensed facilities represent about half of the storage in the state.

Grain elevators are currently working to move much of that grain to prepare for the upcoming harvest. March 31 is usually the date grain must be moved from ground storage, but Bontrager said there is so much of it that the state has extended that date as long as the elevator is maintaining the crop’s quality.

Last month, state records showed bushels approved for ground storage were at 4.9 million for wheat and about 30 million for milo – although Bontrager said that doesn’t mean that much grain is on the ground.

Meanwhile, as of April 21, Kansas’ federally licensed elevators had 39.3 million bushels of grain in emergency storage and about 71.4 million in temporary storage.

Bontrager doesn’t expect the storage situation to get much better by June. Conditions could change as scouts take to the fields this week.

In its latest report assessed before the storm, about 50 percent of the state’s wheat crop was in good to excellent condition, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Roughly 35 percent of the crop is listed as fair and 16 percent poor or very poor.

“The indications we have is that storage is going to be a challenge this year,” Bontrager said. “There could be a lot of things that impact that.

“The oversupplied demand hasn’t changed,” he said, adding that U.S. wheat farmers had “a perfect crop, and so did the rest of the world.”

Crews at Mid-Kansas Cooperative have been busy moving grain to make room for the new crop, but there is still some wheat in ground storage, said Ted Schultz, chief operating officer with Team Marketing Alliance – the marketing arm for several area cooperatives.

Schultz said the wheat in central Kansas has the potential to be another good crop. If realized, it would unleash more supply into the already saturated market.

“It is all across the world,” he said. “We haven’t had any disasters in several years – Russia, Europe – all the countries that raise wheat. Everyone had a fairly decent crop.”

Driving by grain piles near Grainfield, Kansas Wheat Chief Executive Officer Justin Gilpin talked about the impact of the poor farm economy not only on farmers but also on rural communities.

“It was such an extraordinary year with record yields for wheat and corn,” said Gilpin, adding that prices dropped low enough that the government’s loan deficiency payments were triggered for the first time in 13 years after the 2016 wheat harvest.

He said a government report earlier this year showed wheat in storage in the state totaled 420 million bushels – up 29 percent from a year ago – a record high. That said, the export market is moving wheat.

“We are going to have one of our largest export years in a long time,” he said. “We are at 28 million metric tons of wheat, which is a lot.”

Credit Courtesy / Kansas State University
Kansas State University

Western Kansas farmers concerned

Monday afternoon, Lane County farmer Vance Ehmke drove out to one of his wheat fields and dug into the snow.

“We have boot-top-high snow all the way to the ground,” he said. “The snow is holding the wheat up, but it is like wrapping yourself in an ice-cold blanket.

“Just being under that snow for a long time, I’m in the early stages of being worried,” he said.

Being in the pre-boot stage of development will help, he said. But some wheat, including in southern Kansas, is heading out.

Previous estimates showed the area’s crop at anywhere from zero to 90 bushels an acre, Ehmke said of the potential.

Meanwhile, he also has fields hurt by the wheat streak mosaic virus.

“This is all happening at a time when net farm incomes are really, really bad,” he said. “When every time you walk in the house and your wife says, ‘You didn’t spend any money again, did you?’ “

The wheat price at the Dighton elevator went up from $2.90 last week to around $3.50 a bushel. What the market is saying is there is less wheat to sell, he said.

“Western Kansas doesn’t have to raise a kernel one in wheat,” he said. “We already have plenty of wheat in the bin.”

Ehmke said some of the wheat-tour scouts will stop at his farm fields Wednesday on their way to Wichita.

“There is a hell of a lot of balls in the air,” Ehmke said of the issues with the crop.

Up until the snowstorm, Sipes said he was feeling comfortable he might have a decent stand of wheat. He isn’t sure how long his crop, which is still in the boot stage of development, sustained temperatures below 32 degrees.

“I guess time will tell,” he said.