The dust storms that closed I-70 earlier this year were all the proof anyone needed that 2011 wasn't going to win any awards for being the greatest year for farmers on the High Plains.
After enduring one of the worst droughts in history, wheat yields on our farm were off about 25%, which doesn't include the acres that were zeroed out by the crop adjuster. For milo, only 15% of our planted acreage was harvested on our farm.
While the check from crop insurance buffeted some of the losses this year, another year of historic drought might persuade insurance companies to raise premiums even more – right alongside rising fertilizer, fuel and seed prices.
But, discouraging weather conditions are precisely what's on order as we head into 2012. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's long-term weather forecasts, the drought situation in the central and southern plains isn't looking up. A warmer and drier trend associated with La Nina is expected to continue through at least February for the southern tier of the U.S., before weakening in the spring.
Is there anything to give us any hope that 2012 won't be a disaster like 2011?
Surprisingly, we're actually ending 2011 in a much better place than 2010. Our wheat stand now is miles ahead of last year's crop due to some timely rains that boosted fall establishment. USDA's crop ratings also show improvement. The Kansas winter wheat crop was last rated at 47% good-to-excellent, compared to 37% last year.
Subsoil moisture still is largely short on our farm – soil probing reveals only 6-8" of moisture in most places while a few locations probe down as much as 2-2.5' – but when compared to last year, that's a huge improvement. NOAA's drought index also shows that we've made huge improvements over last year. For the west-central region of Kansas, moisture conditions here currently are rated Near Normal, compared to the Moderate Drought conditions we had at the same time last year.
And, after the recent blizzard that left snow drifts of 3-4 feet and with a pickup buried so deep we had to pull it out with a tractor, our moisture condition heading into the New Year is looking even more promising.
So, while the outlook for the rest of the winter may not be encouraging, we can say this much: 2012 is already off to a better start than last year. Now, are we pushing our luck by also praying for $10 wheat?
Happy New Year!