Wheat losing dominance as the state’s ‘King’ crop

Think Kansas and people think of Dorothy, tornadoes, cattle and of course, wheat.

At 9.3 million harvested acres and nearly 363 million bushels produced this year, Kansas is still the No. 1 winter wheat state. But things are changing, a Kansas State University economist said.

In fact, the production of corn is expected to equal nearly 465 million bushels this year, surpassing wheat production for the first time ever in Kansas.

“Wheat is still king in Kansas, but we seem ready to abdicate the throne,” said K-State Research and Extension agricultural economist Brad Lubben.

Kansas has lost more than 2.5 million wheat acres over the past 25 years, said Lubben, who spoke recently at the 2000 Fall Cereal Conference sponsored by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

At the same time, acreage planted to corn and soybeans has increased, he said.

“Corn production has been going up since the mid-’80s and has nearly tripled in that time period,” he said. “And soybean acres have nearly tripled in the past 25 years.”

Both crops have displaced wheat and grain sorghum (milo) acres with soybeans taking particular hold in the eastern part of the state.

Even with the reduction in acres, however, Kansas is still the leading grain sorghum state, at 3.2 million harvested acres this year. But that’s down from 3.4 million harvested acres in 1999.

Why the change?

“Crop selection is based on current yield expectations, price expectations and production costs,” Lubben said, “with price expectations driven by market prices and government loan rates.”

Farmers are also taking a hard look at crop rotations and their benefits on yields and production. Changes in government policies, leaving farmers more freedom to change their planting strategies, also entered the picture in the late 1990s.

“The target price [program] expired in 1995,” Lubben said. “Now we don’t have target prices distorting market signals, allowing producers to be more responsive to market conditions. However, we still have the loan program and the loan rate continues to limit market price signals.”

Further, the agronomics of planting corn versus milo and soybeans versus wheat have changed.

“Growth in corn yields have generally exceeded growth in milo yields over time,” Lubben said.

A similar situation is true in soybean yields over wheat yields. It’s possible that more research money in corn and soybeans is driving greater technology gains than in milo and wheat, he added. In addition, farmers may be rotating more productive fields to the expanding crops.

A better understanding of the benefits of rotating crops in terms of increased yields, pest control and fertility also have come into play, Lubben said.

Biotechnology advances that enhance pest control in corn and weed control in soybeans have further attracted growers’ interest as has increased understanding of the benefits of no-till and reduced-till farming.

Over the last 25 years, moisture conservation from less tillage that makes more moisture available for crop growth, and technological advances in drills used in no-till operations have both made a difference, the economist said.

When looking at the data it’s important to remember, however, that despite a greater increase in corn and soy yields over the past 25 years than in wheat, Kansas wheat yields in 1998 and 1999 were record large.

“That raises questions-are the last two years evidence of a new increasing long-term yield trend?” Lubben said. “Or are the last two years just a deviation from a relatively flat long-term yield trend?”

As with all yield and price expectations, the challenge is in knowing how much information, history or experience is necessary to make a confident prediction for future profitability.

“I don’t think either wheat or milo is going to disappear from Kansas, but I do think economic analysis and market signals are growing as driving factors in crop decisions,” Lubben said.

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