For the past two months, Jeremy Ross has been fielding calls on Arkansas' wheat crop.
“Producers are wondering what the minimum stand count is, what they need to do about fertilization, what they need to be seeing in the field right now to have a profitable outcome at the end of the season,” says Ross, an Arkansas Extension area agronomist.
“Guys call and say, ‘I didn't get the crop planted until mid-November, and it just doesn't look good. Should I go ahead and fertilize?’ We've got fields in the state that, as late as January, still hadn't sprouted. There's some sorry-looking wheat out there.”
Ross says it appears the state will harvest between 550,000 and 600,000 acres of wheat — a range well shy of the 10-year average of 1.1 million acres.
“USDA had us at 760,000 acres planted last fall. So we could lose 200,000 acres. We're way off the norm.”
When wheat prices rose last year, Ross was expecting the state to plant 1.5 million acres. Producers were scrambling around looking for wheat seed. But the weather turned wet — hurricanes came through — and that impeded planting. Farmers who normally plant wheat behind rice were almost shut out statewide, says Ross.
“The wet blew in and never seemed to leave, and that kept acres low. Now, this potential 200,000-acre drop in what was planted is mostly a result of fertilizer prices. Last Friday, prices were between $260 and $275 per ton — that's $90 to $100 more than farmers normally pay.”
There will be “a bunch” of abandoned wheat acres, says Ross. If there's not a 40- to 45-bushel potential, many farmers are plowing their wheat under.
“That's going on right now, and it's happening up and down the eastern side of the state.”
Anyone going ahead with the wheat crop should be praying, says Ross.
“We can't afford any disease or pests — armyworms, stripe rust, whatever — to show up in a month or so. We're already behind and can't afford any more problems.”
Lazaro White, Lee County, Ark., Extension agent, says all the wheat farmers in his area are going to fertilize their crops. But that doesn't mean things are great.
“We don't have nearly the wheat we normally have. Last year, we had 30,000-plus acres of wheat. This year, we've got less than 15,000 acres. We're down at least 50 percent from last year. There just wasn't enough time to plant last fall. What was planted is on higher ground on better soils. That's why the yields are okay and fertilizer is being applied.”
Lee County's wheat acreage has slipped badly. About 10 years ago, Lee County, with 120,000 acres, had the second-highest wheat acreage in the state — behind Mississippi County.
“We're going with a lot of corn this year,” says White. The high fertilizer prices don't seem to be scaring too many producers away from corn. We're going hot and heavy with corn planting right now. I think we'll end up with 30,000 to 35,000 acres of corn — up from 28,000 acres last year.”
Ross says it looks like the state will have around 350,000 to 400,000 acres of corn.
“I don't know if the high fertilizer and fuel prices will frighten producers away from corn, though. And drying prices on the back end are a concern as well,” says Ross. “But with corn, you can't cut fertility. Once you do that, it's unlikely you'll produce a high-yielding crop. There aren't a lot more corners we can cut from crops and still get great yields.”
Mississippi County's 10-year wheat acreage average is around 70,000 acres.
“We're way off that,” says Dave Freeze, Mississippi County Extension agent. “I think if the weather had been good, that number would have been reached or exceeded. Right now, I'm wondering if we'll have 10,000 acres of wheat harvested in Mississippi County. At one time, I was predicting 20,000 acres, but I'm in serious doubt about that number now.”
As in other areas, farmers just couldn't get wheat planted in the county. There was a short three-day window in early October before the rains started. By the time most producers were able to get into their fields it was November, says Freeze. By late November, “it's highly questionable whether a profitable wheat crop can even be produced.”
Last week, Freeze looked at a couple of fields that averaged 26 tillars.
“Extension specialists always say one healthy tillar is equivalent to one bushel in yield. If you do the figuring, what you've got in the wheat crop from here on out is about $20 to $25 of fertilizer and about that much for harvesting. So, you're looking at $50 right there. “I also factor in ‘opportunity costs’ because, if you can plant Group 4 soybeans or milo in April, they'll probably be able to beat drought and outyield double-crop beans by at least 5 bushels. So I usually tack on $20 to $30.”
That means what's needed from the wheat crop is at least $80 just to break even, says Freeze. The price of wheat is poor, so the $80 figure will be hard to reach.
“If you only have 25 tillars — or 25 bushels — that low number won't swing it. If there's not 30-plus tillars, why take a chance? If you're going with a conservative game plan, the safest thing would seem to be planting soybeans or milo — that's what farmers around here are thinking anyway.”