Next Generation Farming

Drought May Force Early Wheat Planting

With the drought expected to continue, wheat planting may come early.

There's been a lot of head scratching the last couple weeks over how or when to plant wheat this fall – if we can plant at all.

Records on heat and drought have been broken all over the central and southern plains this year with some locations beating the worst years of the Dirty Thirties. On our farm, we currently have only 6" of accumulated precipitation since January, leaving us 9" behind normal for the year. On some farms only a few miles farther south, precipitation from September 2010 to September 2011 is scarcely 1-2 inches. As a result of the intense dryness, the number of abandoned wheat acres this past spring here in Lane County exceeded 20,000 out of 125,000 acres planted. A good portion of those acres were abandoned due to the extraordinarily dry planting conditions last fall.

Unfortunately, our outlook this fall doesn't look much better. The latest forecasts point to more disastrous planting conditions with little moisture expected to help get the 2011-2012 wheat crop up and started.

According to our state climatologist Mary Knapp at Kansas State University, our outlook is not hopeful. We have two scenarios working against us: First is the ridge of high pressure over Texas, which if it stays in place and continues to block moisture coming in from the Gulf of Mexico – our primary driver of moisture on the plains – our chances for any meaningful rains this fall remain slim. 

Secondly, the La Nina trend that has contributed to the dryness this summer looks as though it will continue, which would cause a warmer and drier than normal winter in the western part of the central plains. So, even if the Texas ridge breaks down, we will still have to contend with the double-whammy of La Nina.

All of this creates a conundrum on planting. Do we plant early and take advantage of the little moisture we have now, or roll the dice and wait for a rain?

Planting earlier than normal brings its own risks. Recommended dates for planting wheat for our region of the plains is Sept. 15 – Oct. 20. While we can still take advantage of the small amount of moisture we have in the soil, planting ahead of this timeframe increases the risk of plant diseases and insect infestations. Problems with barley yellow dwarf, wheat streak mosaic and Hessian fly can be just as harmful to the crop as a bad drought. 

The consequences of planting later, though, could be far worse. If we decide to wait, we may be in the same predicament farmers were in last fall – waiting for a rain that never arrived. That ended up being a very costly move for farmers. Fields planted late last year didn't germinate until spring, at which point yield potential normally is cut in half. This year, yield potential fell closer to zero for those fields.

Given the bleak outlook that the dry trend is much more likely to continue than change this fall, we're defying the experts' advice of planting in our recommended window and planting early to use the little moisture we still have.

Risky? Sure it is, but following the rules in years like this may be the biggest risk of all.

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