OMAHA (DTN) -- As an Oklahoma Panhandle farmer, Jerod McDaniel almost every year plans for dry weather and hopes for rain.
The Texhoma, Oklahoma, farmer/cattleman said extremely dry fall and winter conditions are changing farmers' fertility plans. Wheat -- usually topdressed in February -- and spring-planted crops could see less fertilizer applied as farmers decide if it is worth investing in crops that could produce considerably smaller yields.
"There is moisture in the subsoil, but just nothing in the topsoil," McDaniel told DTN. "I'm going to guess very little inputs will be put on wheat going forward."
Drought is currently a major issue facing the Southern Plains, according to DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. More than 70% of the region from Texas to Kansas is in at least moderate drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map, and over 15% of the region is in extreme drought.
In southwest Kansas, Dodge City has received only .13 inch of precipitation since Dec. 1, down 92% from normal and 96% below the 3.18 inches seen a year ago, Anderson said.
Further to the south in Texas, Feb. 7 marked the 117th consecutive day that Amarillo did not have measurable precipitation; that is a new record breaking the old record of 75 days, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Records for the region go back to 1892, Anderson said.
Also in Texas, Feb. 7 marked the 91st consecutive day in Lubbock without measurable precipitation, Anderson said. This is only seven days off the 98-day NWS record for that city.
Anderson said the forecast is not favorable for ending this dry pattern anytime soon.
"There will be some light rain and snow in the region during the next week, but actual precipitation will be under 0.25 inches," Anderson said. "In our view, the Southern Plains will continue in drought through the rest of the winter and spring."
Farmer Bart Parks, of Johnson, Kansas, said extremely dry field conditions will force farmers to make decisions on the viability of crops beginning with winter wheat. The amount of topdressing wheat sees could be slim to none over a large area of the Southern Plains unless things change rapidly, he said.
"If nothing changes in the next 30 to 45 days, I'd say fertilizer retailers could count on a 70%-plus reduction in total UAN (urea ammonium nitrate) usually applied to wheat," Parks said.
Farmers who have locked in fertilizer already for topdressing wheat have some options if they choose not to topdress, according to Parks.
Some retailers will allow you to roll chemicals to a different time, he said. Other options include buying out the contract from the retailer or even selling the purchased fertilizer to another farmer who still needs it.
Parks said the region's farmers can still grow "a lot" of wheat without fertilizing the crop. The question is whether it makes 10 or 70 bushels per acre; that is yet to be seen, he added.
As for his own wheat acres, Parks said he would guess he will not topdress a single acre. That could change, however, if wheat prices rise another 50 to 75 cents or maybe a moisture event would happen.
However, he doubts either of those will actually occur, he said.
Further to the south in the Oklahoma Panhandle, McDaniel believes his wheat crop is not in very good shape. He estimates it has been about 125 days since his home area has seen significant moisture.
His wheat will break dormancy fairly soon, perhaps as soon as 10 to 12 days from now. He applied fertilizer after he planted in the fall and, after some growth, ran his cattle on the crop before it entered dormancy.
Like Parks, McDaniel probably will not topdress his wheat unless moisture arrives. Economically, it just doesn't make sense to apply fertilizer, considering the low price of winter wheat, he said. "I think most will just say 'what is there is there.'"
Despite all this doom and gloom, Parks believes the wheat crop in his home area of southwestern Kansas will yield something. He guesses they will have a better than 50% chance of raising an average crop.
"People really like to be negative," he said. "It's not dead yet."
TOO EARLY FOR CORN, MILO
As for spring-planted crops like corn and milo, it is still too early to tell what Southern Plains farmers will decide about fertilizing these crops. Farmers with irrigation may have to run the pivot to moisten the topsoil when fertilizer is applied.
Parks said fertilizer plans for most Southern Plains irrigated acres will most likely remain the same. Dryland acres, however, could see a pullback on fertilizer applications if the dry conditions remain through the spring.
McDaniels believes the yield potential for these crops is greater and thus farmers will continue to fertilize these crops for higher yields. On his own operation, he has shifted the majority of acres to corn and milo and away from wheat in recent years.
"It is about getting a return out of your investment; that is the nature of our business," McDaniel said. "This is why I only have about 5% to 10% of the number of acres of wheat I had five years ago."
Because dry conditions seem to be a regular thing in the Southern Plains, McDaniel has moved to limited and no-till operations. Because of this, more residues remain and they seem to carry various wheat diseases. This is another reason for planting less wheat, he said.
Increased competition from various weeds in recent years has led him back to some tillage, mainly in the form of strip till. This has allowed him to apply some different types of fertilizer that need to be incorporated, he said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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