There's no way to sugarcoat it: with every passing day the Arkansas wheat crop isn't harvested, it is in increasing jeopardy.
“Overall, Arkansas' wheat crop and harvest just isn't looking good,” says Jeremy Ross, Arkansas Extension verification program coordinator. “In fact, it's getting more and more ugly. By this time last year, we were within sight of the harvesting finish line. And don't forget that last year was a bad year — rains wiped out 200,000 acres. That should give some indication about the conditions our current crop is facing.”
Ross expects some 550,000 acres of wheat to be harvested in Arkansas — the lowest total in nearly 20 years. Adding to the dire forecast, earlier this week the USDA categorized only 8 percent of the state's wheat as “excellent.”
Ross says pockets of fields south of I-40 have some good wheat. But, he says, it would be generous to describe the wheat north of I-40 as “rough.”
“I'm hoping we can get a break from the rain for the next five or six days. We need a break in the clouds to dry ground and harvest this wheat before things go very badly, very quickly. If the current pattern of daily showers keeps up for another week, we're going to be in trouble. The extended forecast looks like it'll start drying up this weekend (June 20). If it doesn't, major problems are coming.”
In many areas, it's impossible to get into fields.
“The ground is so saturated in places that it won't hold combines up,” says Trey Reaper, Arkansas Extension area agronomist. “The longer the wheat sits out there, the worse the problems will be. Other than warm, dry weather, nothing good can happen from here on. The wheat crop is starting to lodge, starting to fall down, and test weights are dropping. We've got to get this crop out as quickly as we can.”
Reaper says even if producers could get into fields, the grain has a moisture content that's too high for harvest. The wheat won't thresh well, won't separate from the heads, and farmers are looking at major dockage if they take it in.
“The higher the moisture, the lower the test weight, the more dockage you face,” says Reaper. “Chris Tingle (Arkansas Extension soybean specialist) this morning (June 19) said a farmer told him he'd carried his wheat to the elevator and was docked 25 percent. That dockage was on just about every load he carried in.”
Reaper says the verification fields he's worked in have faced the same problems as fields everywhere else.
“About the time we were ready to jump in and harvest, the rain set in and hasn't let up. I've got two verification fields and part of a third that we've got left to harvest. The fields that have been harvested seem to have okay yields. Actually, yields in the mid-70s aren't unheard of.”
Ross has heard similar yield numbers. Before the latest series of rains hit, “we were hearing of some pretty good yields — from 50 bushels to 80 bushels. Farmers in Ashley County said they were cutting some of the best wheat they'd ever grown. But all season they were drier than other areas of the state.”
Ross believes around 50 percent of Arkansas' wheat crop is still in the field. And with so much wheat left to get out, the planting of double-crop soybeans becomes an issue. Regarding that issue, Ross spoke with Tingle on June 17.
“(Tingle) said around 20 percent of Arkansas' double-crop soybeans had been planted. That means we're way behind. We don't recommend planting soybeans after, say, the first week of July. But if things keep on the current path, I'm sure some fields will have to be planted later than that.”
As wet as the ground and straw are, when it does come time to plant double-crop soybeans, farmers should pay close attention to the penetration of their no-till drills, says Reaper.
“Make sure the wheat stubble is gotten through. It's very important that the stalks are dried out, that drills can penetrate, and that coulters can do their job.”
Both Ross and Reaper say rumblings about the poor crop have begun.
A prominent farmer in eastern Arkansas “said he's 10 bushels off his norm,” says Ross. “Three years ago, he had 1,000 acres of wheat. This year, he planted 600 acres and next year he said he's not planting more than 200 acres. It just isn't worth it to him.”
“I'm hearing similar things in the coffee shop,” says Reaper. “A bad year hits and everyone pledges not to go big with wheat anymore. From what my family has experienced on our farm, I worry about the same issues. Of course, for new crop wheat, it'll all boil down to what the price looks like in July and August. Potential profits go a long way towards making you forget how bad a growing season has been. Maybe that'll happen here. I know one thing: we're due a break.”