The winter wheat harvest is expected to begin within days in south-central Kansas as the industry grapples with mostly poor crops, but lofty prices for whatever farmers manage to salvage.
At the OK Co-op Grain Co. elevator in Kiowa, growers already have begun test cutting wheat on both sides of the Kansas-Oklahoma border, said assistant manager Dennis Carroll.
Those early test samples are still too high in moisture, but the first Kansas fields should be ready to harvest in the area within a day or two, he said.
Carroll said the elevator expects to get at least "maybe half a crop — possibly, hopefully — than we normally get."
But with cash prices at the Kiowa elevator at $8.55 a bushel on Thursday farmers the mood among growers remains "pretty good" despite the lower anticipated yields. At this same time last year, wheat prices were hovering at around $3 a bushel.
"You can get by with a third of the bushels," Carroll said wryly.
That is good for those farmers who will get high prices for the grain they do harvest and crop insurance payments for the fields that they lost. But this is going to be a rough winter wheat harvest for the custom harvesters that make their living cutting the crop and the grain elevators that make their revenues by storing it.
"It is a bleak picture," said Pam Shmidl, operations manager for U.S. Custom Harvesters, the trade group for custom cutters.
Some custom harvesters have lost thousands of acres that they normally cut at a time when fuel prices for their machines at the start of harvest hit $4 a gallon before falling some in recent days. Meanwhile, their costs for equipment payments, wages for hired men and food expenses continue as they wind their way northward across the nation's breadbasket following the ripening crops.
Winter wheat crops in Texas and Oklahoma have been so poor that many custom cutters never bothered to haul their machines down there, Shmidl said. A lot of them are hoping they will have something in Kansas to cut.
"This year more than others, there is just so much unknown as the combines start rolling into the fields," said Aaron Harries, marketing director for the industry trade group Kansas Wheat.
"We owe that to the fact that the weather has been so variable in the last two weeks," he said. "We've had days of 100 degree temperatures and high winds and we have had some beneficial rains — and it has all come in the critical stage for the wheat when it is filling the grain kernels in the heads."
Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service forecast last month that this year's Kansas winter wheat crop would come in at 261.8 million bushels, a figure based on crop conditions as of May 1. If realized, the Kansas crop would still be down 27 percent from last year for the lowest production in the state since 1996. An updated forecast will not be released until June 9.
If the weather remains dry and hot as forecast for the next seven days, the wheat harvest could begin south of Wichita next week, Harries said.
Expectations for the Kansas crop are "somewhat cautious," he said, adding he is feeling more comfortable with the government forecast after recent rainfall in central and northern parts of the state. But the drought conditions linger in west-central and southwest Kansas. Meanwhile, north-central Kansas is struggling with the opposite extreme with fields there receiving way too much moisture.
Wheat grower Scott Van Allen expects to start cutting sometime in the next week the 2,500 acres of winter wheat he planted at his Clearwater farm, south of Wichita.
Farmers in south-central Kansas were lucky in that they had decent moisture last fall when they planted their crop, even though there wasn't much moisture during the winter when the crop was dormant. When the crop came out of dormancy in the spring, it started going downhill very fast, he said. But timely spring rains fell during the critical time as the plant was filling the grain head.
Van Allen is hopeful he will get at least 30 bushels per acre, and maybe even 35 bushels per acre production from of his fields in south-central Kansas.
He anticipates the higher grain prices this year will help make up for his production losses.
"You can still make a little money with fewer bushels if you can sell it for more," Van Allen said.