“What happens next?” to a wheat crop subjected to two April storms dumping 6 or more inches of snow each time and temperatures down into the teens after a warm March that stimulated its premature growth?
Not only “What happens next?” but “What do you do next?” were two questions asked most often by persons invested in wheat in this area, including farmers, crop insurers, grain buyers and planting suppliers.
It was hard to draw many conclusions simply by looking at the wheat immediately, said Ed Hein, Hillsboro farmer.
“It’s just so hard to tell,” Hein said. “The only thing sure is that it’s a big loss. We may have to see how the heads look when it leafs out again. Did it kill the tillers or will those grow out?”
Randy Vogel, Marion farmer, added that the sheer weight of the last snow, like thick, wet concrete, could have done further mechanical damage to the wheat, like breaking off central stems.
Nearly every wheat field looked sick—stands of yellowed and spotted leaves, flattened plants and those that looked like they could shortly turn to black or yellow mush.
Alternate plans, such as planting spring crops of milo or soybeans to replace the wheat, were considered. Another option could help get by the remaining hay-tight year by baling the wheat for cattle hay, especially because the first cutting of alfalfa appeared to have died off alongside the wheat.
The entire event, by most opinions, was unprecedented.
Jeff Cady, crop insurance agent and partner in the National Farmers Union agency in Marion, voiced the shared apprehensions.
“Everybody is interested in what happens next. But at this point in time, we’re going to have to wait for three or four warm days in bright sunshine to see which way to go,” said Cady.
“In some cases it will be a pie-in-the-sky decision. For some persons, it may be an easily called decision whether to collect insurance, and go to other crops. For many farmers, it will be their own best, informed decision.
“It will make it pretty tough on them and on our adjusters,” Cady added. “The adjusters will be spread thin. They may not make it around until the first of May.”
Several state sources were calling the crop at least 45 percent gone.
Hein said herbicide use could limit what farmers can do if the wheat crop is a total loss. He said he and many other farmers use a herbicide for weed control on wheat that will kill milo. That leaves them with perhaps soybeans as the best follow-up crop to grow.
Kevin Suderman, agronomist for Cooperative Grain & Supply, agreed that the first step is to see what may happen with the wheat with about four days of warmth. Farmers will be better able to see how much of the plant changes color to die, or shows rot.
But Suderman added that he is encouraged to see how much of the wheat is standing even after the second snow. He has opened the emerging “boots,” where the grain is formed on some plants, and discovered the grain isn’t rotten yet.
“But just two hours at 25 degrees when the flag leaf is out is enough to do damage,” he said. “There are variables here about how cold it got, and how long it lasted. This was prolonged. It also depends on what the ground temperature was.
“A lot depends on how much the tillers (the parts of the wheat that can grow out to the sides to fill in gaps) are damaged. The central stem can be gone, but if the tillers didn’t get damaged, we could still have a lot of 25- to 30-bushel wheat around.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” he added. “Even the older producers can’t remember anything exactly like it. One older producer said there was an event like it in 1967, and they still had 10 to 20 bushels an acre. But he said it wasn’t as bad as this.”
Suderman noted that more than one factor made this event unique. First, the unusual warmth of March brought the wheat on 10 days to two weeks earlier than temperatures normally would have allowed, he said.
Added to this is that newer, short-strawed wheat varieties have been faster maturing anyway. Suderman recalled that in his youth he watched the Fourth of July fireworks at Peabody from a combine platform while cutting wheat. This year, most people were projecting that wheat harvest would begin June 1.
The predominance of some very short-season varieties, such as Jaggers, added to the quick growth this year, he said.
Suderman reminded producers to at least be happy that “our ancestors selected a very tough, resilient grain plant that can stand a wide variety of temperatures and conditions for our main crop.”
He said he hopes every farmer will visit the test plots near Ebenfeld Church on Tuesday, where a Kansas State University agronomist was intending to lead discussions on the wheat.
Suderman expects to see many ideas from producers as they deal with this year’s problem.
“I know some will take it as a hay crop,” he said. “We’ll see a lot of row crop to replace it this year. They’ll come up with some interesting ideas. We’ll make it work.”
Hein added, “I just hope it doesn’t freeze anymore.”