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Time to Give Spring Wheat Its Last Rites?

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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The photo on the left is in Polk County, Minnesota, which has seen very little rain since it was planted in the spring. The photo on the right is spring wheat that was planted late March/early April on 2020 sunflower ground in the worst of the drought area in western North Dakota. (Photo on the left by Tim Dufault Crookston, Minnesota; photo on the right by Paul Anderson Coleharbor, North Dakota)

A few weeks ago, on June 1, I did a story titled "Is Spring Wheat on Life Support?" (…) and just a few weeks later many farmers in the severe drought areas of the U.S. Northern Plains would agree that it's probably time to give the 2021 spring wheat crop last rites.

"I would downgrade my spring wheat from a mangy coyote, back to a hairless Chihuahua that looks nervous and pees on your leg when you look at it wrong," said Paul Anderson, Coleharbor, North Dakota. "I have about 1,000 acres of spring wheat planted in McLean County, North Dakota. I sprayed it all for weeds recently and called my crop insurance agent to report a claim. We drove every field and crop insurance adjuster said the stands on the first 750 acres were too thin to even put up for hay. He remembered 1988 and said my fields looked worse than that."

Anderson added, "About 750 acres was 6-inches tall with the flag leaf out and some heads poking out. The stands were very thin. No amount of rain or cooler temps will fix that."

South of Anderson, near Turtle Lake, North Dakota, Alan Klain told me on June 16 the temperature hit 91 with 40 mile-per-hour winds. "We have received approximately 2.5 inches of rain since May 20, but evaporation and crop use of .40 per day has made that disappear quickly. We made the decision after scouting our early wheat to skip the $20 spray bill as it was very clean and its future yield isn't good. Like I said last time we talked for the first wheat story, it's a survival mode cutting expense and we only sprayed 50 acres out of 2,000-plus of wheat."

Klain said, "Overall, it's headed for a crop insurance future. Corn and beans have some time, but they will be in the same boat if we don't get more rain before July 4."

Peter Ness, Ness Farms, Sharon, North Dakota, said, "We ended up with 1.1 inches of rain the second week of June; too little, too late. One half of a field is 10-12 inches tall, heading out; the other half the field is 6 inches trying to head out. The book is closed on the wheat crop; trying to manage some kochia that's about it. It'll be a sub 20-bushel per acre crop; maybe break 15 bushels per acre."

"We have gotten some rain; anywhere from 1 to 1.5 inches in the last two weeks," said Bryan Kenner, Maddock, North Dakota. "I think it was too late for most of the wheat. I don't have a good guess what it will yield but I'm certain it will be the poorest wheat I've ever grown."

Darrin Schmidt, eastern North Dakota, said his worst looking field in his area is very thin and should have been abandoned. "That field is 6 inches tall and starting to head. I know of one field of wheat that was killed and reseeded into soybeans. More should have been, but guessing farmers worried about moisture. One of our best-looking fields is heading out and is about 8-12 inches tall," said Schmidt.

"We've had some rain, but it was too late for the wheat crop here, said Kerry Baldwin, Hope, North Dakota. "This looks like the poorest wheat crop in over 40 years of farming for me. Some is heading at 6 inches tall."

"In Lansford, North Dakota, we have caught a few nice rains to total about 3 inches all spring and it has kept the wheat going," said Matt Undlin. "The hot temps last week took its toll and probably knocked off the top-end yield. But as we sit with a little more moisture, we could still have a good wheat crop. A few early planted spring wheat fields are showing heads at about 15 inches. Most the wheat is shading the ground and tillering now and over a foot. It is anyone's guess where final yield and qualify ends up."

"Right here, in the Devils Lake area, I don't have a field that will average 40 bushels per acre. I think mid-30s will be the top wheat I'll have. Worst fields will be close to 10-15 bushels per acre," said Jason Hanson agronomist, owner Rock and Roll Agronomy, LLC Webster, North Dakota. "If I was to estimate overall yield at this point, I'd say it will be 15- to 25-bushel average."

Hanson said in some parts of the state the wheat crop is worth more as hay than wheat. "Farther west of here, it gets worse and there are too many fields that you can still see down the wheat rows for one-fourth mile in spots. Barley looks better. The wheat is so uneven, short in height due to pushed vegetative stages and dry during grain fill. Head size is down. Harvest is going to suck due to unevenness of the crop."


When I asked Tim Luken, manager of Oahe Grain, Onida, South Dakota, how spring wheat looked in his area, he said, "Not good. The wheat has a blueish green color, is short and is heading out. I'm guessing 5- to 25-bushels per acre." Luken said their winter wheat crop is "not super bad" and is guessing it may make 35- to 50-bushels per acre, depending on if it was on prevented planting acres and if the extreme temperatures stay away. "Our rains here have been hit and miss. On June 13, some had zero rain and others had up to 1 inch and temperatures have been 90 to 100 degrees."

Ryan Wagner, Wagner Farms, Roslyn, South Dakota, said, "The recent rains did help and will allow us to hold on to what yield potential is left, but it's no doubt been hurt and the top end is gone. We need one or two more rains and some cooler weather. Hopefully we will get that in the next week, but for the most part, I'm fairly pessimistic on wheat yield."

A farmer in eastern Montana told me his area was looking "surprisingly" good, but after the June 15, 30-plus mile-per-hour wind and 100-degree temperatures, the recrop spring wheat was showing the stress. He said, "It is pushing out the head and is not real thick and now has the blue tinge during the afternoon. Reality is setting in that it will be a long summer and a very short harvest season with extra bin space at the end."

He did mention there is less spring wheat planted in his area with a lot more lentils, and acreage there is up 25% or more at the expense of spring wheat acres. "However, our 15-day outlook has 20% chance of .02 on June 20 and that's it, with a warming trend starting. So, I feel like the party may be over (definite top side of yields are gone) for the majority of the acres around here as they are recrop, but I don't know how the lentils will do under this stress."

One last item he mentioned was grasshoppers. "Southern end of my county is spraying heavy for hoppers in crop and we will put it in our last acres of wheat as well. Have heard how they are taking the blossoms off lentils, which is what they do, as well as all the normal stuff to wheat and grass. Our yards and ditches are thick with little ones getting bigger. They may be the big winner this year," he said.

"This year's wheat is shaping up to be the worse crop I have had in 41 years, said Tim Dufault in Crookston, North Dakota. "Last fall was dry and hardly any snow all winter. It's dry; then, it got hot. So far, in June, we have had six days over 90 degrees and our first 100-degree day in over 30 years. The heat is probably doing as much damage to the wheat as the drought. Wheat has headed out about two weeks early. Tillers and lower leaves have burned off. Most of my wheat is between 12 and 18 inches tall and headed out."

Dufault reported that on Sunday, June 20, the eastern part of the spring wheat belt received up to 1.2 inches of rain, with most areas under 1 inch. "My farm had .63 inch, which was not enough to turn around this crop. Since April 1, I have received just 3.35 inches. Also, we have more heat coming this week."

Dufault added that crop consultants are finding grasshoppers and army worms now. "I had sold about 12 bushels per acre of the 2021 crop before planting. I don't dare sell anymore. I might not harvest that much."

"Most farmers have accepted the fact that it's junk and plan for next year," Hanson said about the 2021 spring wheat crop. "Worst crop I've seen since 1989."

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