It may be a tough year farming in western Kansas thanks to the drought, but it's going to be an even tougher year for custom harvest crews.
Harvest is now officially underway here in Lane County, Kan., and there's a plethora of harvest crews looking for work. One harvester from Minnesota says between Tribune and Dighton, he counted 150 combines parked and waiting for work, and many of the crews he'd never seen before. They're coming from all over to find work, but unfortunately they're not finding it with so few acres to cut. Just in Lane County, farmers abandoned more than 20,000 wheat acres this year out of the 125,000 planted.
My dad, Vance, also says this is probably the greatest surplus of custom cutters he has ever seen in his life. In a "normal" year, crews arrive just in time for harvest. But this year because of the drought encompassing the central and southern plains, crews showed up a full week ahead of schedule to find work. Even harvesters with established customers arrived early just to guarantee they still had a job at harvest with their traditional clients. When competition is so fierce, they can never be too careful.
With so many harvesters and so few acres, harvesting rates are being held at levels similar to last year despite higher wheat and fuel prices. The most common rate is 20-20-20 with some 21-21-21 and 22-22-22 rates also being reported. (The code: $20/acre for the combine, 20 cents for hauling by truck, and 20 cents per bushel for every bushel over 20/acre - labor and overtime rate).
To make up this year's disaster of a wheat crop, harvest crews are talking about picking up the slack with corn and soybean harvest later in the season. Since farmers like us depend greatly on the service these guys provide each year, we're hoping they do. We don't need another year like last year when we had the opposite problem - too much wheat and not enough harvesters!
Our first field of wheat cut Wednesday was slightly better than we had expected with a yield of 35-40 bu/acre and a test weight of 60 lbs/bu. The test weight alone was surprising considering the triple digit heat and high winds we've had in recent weeks. This year, we're thrilled just to get average!
There is also high variability in maturity this year, which could pose a problem as harvest progresses. For farmers whose wheat didn't come up until February or March, harvest may take longer as they wait for the entire field to eventually ripen. That could ultimately bring down the test weight of the rest of the wheat ready to harvest as it sits waiting in the heat and wind.
On the other hand, harvesting too early could result in too much green, wet grain that could cause storage problems later on. But with the forecast calling for highs in the 90s and into the triple digits for the next week, wet wheat will probably be the least of our problems.