With the mid-November sun warming his shoulders, Tim Smith is standing in a wheat field just behind his Holly Grove, Ark., shop. The green plants at his feet, which will give way to soybeans next summer, are tillering at the five-leaf stage.
“I've been hearing other wheat farmers are seeing a bunch of aphids. But we haven't picked up many here,” he says. “We're just lucky, I guess.”
Normally, Smith plants 800 or 900 acres of wheat. For several reasons, this year he's planted only 450 acres.
“The last two three years have been tough with bad winters and a lot of rain. On top of that, Group 4 soybeans planted early are yielding really well for us — they'll out-yield double-crop beans by 10 to 15 bushels per acre. And with soybean prices what they are, it's more profitable to plant early soybeans. Higher nitrogen prices are also a consideration.”
The acreage tug-of-war between wheat acres and other crops is playing out across Arkansas.
“Our April-planted beans did well this year, so that's got to be in the back of everyone's mind: ‘It didn't bite me, so I'm going to try again,’” says Chris Tingle, Arkansas Extension soybean specialist. “There's no way to be sure this early, but my gut feeling is that we'll see an increase in soybean acres next season. The cotton and corn folks are saying the same thing. Obviously, fertilizer prices will have a lot to do with what's planted. Natural gas prices are always an unknown.”
Another factor: many Arkansas producers were burned by planting wheat last year.
“I've spoken with wheat farmers who say, ‘I'm not going through another spring of trying to get wheat taken care of while there are tons of other things that need to be done. Yeah, the price is attractive, but it's not worth the trouble,’” says Tingle.
Jason Kelly, Arkansas Extension wheat specialist, says he's getting reports “all over the board” regarding wheat acres. Taking all reports into account, Kelly believes wheat acreage will be around 900,000 — well under the state's five-year average. The first USDA estimate will be released in mid-January.
Last season, many producers who planted soybeans in May had less than $20 in weed control. Tingle suspects they'll look for a repeat.
And, of course, producers are looking at the highest soybean prices in a decade. Everything looks up for soybeans right now to the detriment of wheat.
“I think part of it is wheat acres going to early beans, but other commodities are going to get their chunk, too,” says Kelly. “Cotton prices are good, too. Wheat prices are better as well — up around $3.50. But when soybeans are around $8 and cotton is at 75 cents, wheat's not as attractive.”
With lessening wheat acres, double-crop wheat/soybean acres will definitely be affected. Typically, between 20 percent and 25 percent of Arkansas' 3 million soybean acres follow wheat. “We won't have that this year,” says Tingle. “Hopefully, that means we won't be dragging harvest into December like some years.”
Regarding pests in the wheat crop, Kelly says he's getting steady reports of aphids. “We've got aphids in our wheat, no doubt. I had a call the other day asking for recommendations on aphid control. There has been some wheat fields treated for aphids around Stuttgart. Producers are doing what they can to avoid the barley yellow dwarf virus. The heavy rains we've had the last couple of days should help get aphid populations down a bit.”
On Smith's early-planted wheat there are a few aphids — but he's yet to find a field at treatment levels.
“We were trying to get past Hessian fly worries, so most of our acres weren't planted until mid-October,” says Smith. “That wheat is getting some size on it and aphid counts have been low thus far. But aphids are a major concern — I've been scouting twice a week. These high temperatures really worry me.”
Smith says the size of his wheat isn't yet a concern.
“That's strictly because we got the wheat planted a little later than normal. If this wheat was planted in September, I'd probably be worried. Actually, I've got some September-planted wheat that was put in as a cover crop. Those plants are already at least 10 inches tall.”
Kelly says the state's wheat is growing rapidly and “that's something to watch. If it stays warm for a few more weeks, it'll be worrisome. Temperatures have been above average all fall and the wheat is shooting up. We don't need it to get too big before cold snaps hit. We don't want freeze damage.”
Smith says if his farming neighbors and buddies are any indication, his story is typical. “Everyone seems to have cut back on wheat acres. There are some exceptions, but that's the story nearly every farmer I know is telling. In talking to seed dealers from around the state, everyone seems to believe wheat acreage is down overall in the state. At one time, I thought only half the normal amount for the state would be planted. But now, I'm hearing it'll probably be 70 or 80 percent of our normal million-plus.”