Drought Sets a Somber Scene for Winter Wheat

By Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter
8/28/2012 12:25:42 PM

Reports of shriveling crops across the country, along with low water gauge readings in the field, haven't inspired much confidence in Gary Millershaski.

In a good year, Millershaski -- a wheat grower from Lakin, Kan., who is getting ready to plant his winter wheat crop -- would have received about 16 to 18 inches of rain by now. He has yet to get 6 inches. He plans to grow wheat on the same number of acres as usual but to plant the grain much more sparsely.

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"I am going to give up that ability for a home run just to stay afloat," he said. "That's my plan right now."

With nearly half of the corn and soybean crops in extreme or exceptional drought areas, it is clear that those crops will offer paltry yields for next year.

But as the planting season begins for winter wheat, which goes dormant in the winter and is harvested in the spring, growers are hoping rains will replenish the soil enough to provide a good crop. Farmers plant the grain from early September to late November.

A lack of deep, subsoil moisture will deprive young roots of water, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. Dry soils are also less effective at protecting plants from frost in the wintertime, a necessary condition when winter wheat is dormant, although this is a lesser problem than starving the roots of moisture.

Millershaski said he needs at least half an inch in the soil to plant his crop.

"You can gamble, throw the dice, and put it in and hope for rain," he said.

Well-timed rains cut losses last year

The big winter wheat states -- Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma -- experienced a drought last summer, but a few well-timed rains in the fall saved growers from devastating losses. Planting choices for this year, they say, will reflect much of the decisions made last year, with the lure of high wheat prices encouraging farmers to plant many acres.

Farmers are 10 to 20 inches low on their water needs, said Bill Spiegel, communications director for the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. That is consistent with what is happening on Millershaski's farm. It is comparable to last year, but the timing of the rains -- right before planting -- is more important than actual inches.

"We were sitting here last year with similar conditions and got two to three good rains," said Tim Bartram, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association. "It's really too early to tell."

"If we look at last year, and this is year two of a drought, we were still able to raise a pretty good crop," he added.

With the early harvest of corn and soybeans, a lot of acres that typically would not be available for wheat planting are now free, explained Spiegel. About 41.9 million acres of winter wheat were planted last fall, according to the Agriculture Department.

Farmers will be in good shape if they get at least 3 to 4 inches of rain by mid-October, said Melissa Kessler, spokeswoman for the National Association of Wheat Growers in Washington, D.C.

Steelee Fischbacher, spokeswoman for the Texas Wheat Producers Board and Association, said she expects planted acres in Texas to be similar to last year. She hopes that an El Niño winter will bring sufficient rain and snow for wheat to thrive.

Rains fell last week over the Ohio Valley and parts of Indiana, according to the latest Drought Monitor released yesterday. Nearly 70 percent of the contiguous United States remains in drought conditions, with one-fifth of the country in extreme or exceptional drought. Overall, temperatures have dropped except for Texas, the southeast coast and northern New England.

A 'matter of extremes,' not climate change

As the drought ravages crops and ignites wildfires across the country, environmentalists and policymakers point to these events as the manifestation of climate change.

But many farmers, who bear the brunt of weather variability, still see weather from one year to the next, rather than a long-term shift in climate.

"It's just one of the cycles of the weather," said Bartram. "We came off an extended 15- to 20-year run of probably wetter-than-normal climate in Oklahoma."

Despite the scorching summer, Millershaski remains a skeptic of climate change.

"I think the weather is just a matter of extremes," he said. "I'm hoping we're just going to outlast this and get back to good ol' normal."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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