Wheat hanging by a thread for lack of moisture

Some say the landscape in central and western Kansas looks like a barren, brown wasteland. Others believe that statement may be too kind.

Whatever you see, and however you describe it—conditions remain dire in many regions of Kansas going into the final week of February.

In Lincoln County for example, it’s difficult, and nearly impossible, to see green anywhere. Wheat crops look brown like the previous year’s stubble or the fall residue. It doesn’t matter if you look at wheat in bottom land or on hill tops, the crop looks terrible.

“There’s no moisture on top,” says veteran farmer-stockman Steve Boor. “I’m at a loss to figure out what our wheat is running on.”

While there’s subsoil moisture about 5 inches below the surface, without surface moisture in the way of a heavy snow or rain, Boor says the crop is hanging on by a thread.

“If the weather stays dry like it has been, temperatures warm up and the wheat breaks dormancy and starts to grow, it will use what moisture it’s living on right now in a hurry,” said Boor.

How long the wheat can hang on without measurable precipitation depends on how cool temperatures stay.

If nights continue cool and daytime temps only reach the 60s for a couple hours each day, the wheat still knows it’s winter, Boor says. However, if the nighttime temperatures begin to warm up into the mid-40s or low 50s, the wheat will wake up and begin growing.

The longer the wheat goes without moisture, the more stressed it becomes. Every day with continued dryness affects the yield.

“Most years this land out here would be a carpet of green,” Boor said. “Instead, it’s brown wherever you look.”

Turning and looking at the landscape in every direction, the Lincoln County producer talks about the great start this wheat began with last fall. September rains provided the crop with abundant moisture to sprout.

The crop looked promising, but soon after it came up the moisture stopped. No measurable precipitation occurred all winter including a couple of skiffs of snow with little moisture.

Historically in this region of the state, little moisture falls during February and March. Weather prognosticators say moisture may set in about the time the wheat begins heading.

“I’d say if the crop doesn’t receive moisture before then, it won’t do much good,” Boor said. “The only green you see out here is the yucca plants. They’re doing well because all their competition has been wiped out.”

While conditions remain “tinder-box” dry throughout much of Kansas, the Boor believes the potential remains to harvest a crop. However, he also knows that every day without moisture the wheat weakens, and yield potential lessens.

“I’ve had this crop break my heart more than once,” he said. “If we could just receive a little moisture to nurse it along.”

Like wheat farmers who have planted the crop for generations, Boor remains determined to take the hand he’s been dealt and make the best of it.

The most difficult aspect of this continuing dry weather is the impact on inhabitants in and around Sylvan Grove where Boor lives—friends, family and neighbors. These inhabitants and the community depend on farming and ranching for their livelihood.

“When agriculture is hurting, our community hurts as well,” he said. “We all depend on crops and livestock for our survival. We need moisture and we need it now.”

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.

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