Armed with a yardstick, notebook and pen, Jim Quinton wades through thick, thigh-high wheat. It's the first week of May and Quinton, in a field outside Stuttgart, Ark., is keen to count and talk tillers.
At the same time, in wheat fields across the state, Extension agents and others in the agricultural industry are doing the same. Their combined efforts, once tabulated, will offer producers a good idea about how fine, or poor, a crop the state has. Counts in other wheat-growing states have already been done or soon will be.
How are things looking so far for Arkansas wheat? “Very good,” says Quinton, executive director of the Illinois Wheat Association. “Actually, really good — very few things jump out as problems.”
In Illinois, winter wheat evaluations or tours have been going on annually for the last 21 years. “I started the tour when I was with the Illinois Farm Bureau. In short order, we had a network of other state Farm Bureaus that we coordinated with — we got a good picture of what the Midwest wheat crop's potential was. It was good marketing information for producers but also a way to build friendships throughout the wheat industry — seed companies, exporters, USDA statisticians, flour millers, media, everyone involved in wheat.”
Once it caught on, many wheat-growing states wanted to be involved in the tiller counts. The tour has now grown into an annual event (to help provide fresh information for soft red winter wheat producers) at a time during the spring when wheat is going through its most rapid change. The first of May is an excellent time to take the pulse of the crop, says Quinton.
Where did the idea come from? “Before working for the Illinois Farm Bureau, I spent several years with Continental Grain Company doing tiller counts. So that's the program's roots. As far as Arkansas, in the early 1990s, William Johnson was the Arkansas Extension wheat specialist. He was insistent that our tour included Arkansas and wheat-growing counties in other Delta states. This is the ninth year we've looked at Delta wheat.”
The gathering of tiller data is simple:
- Lay a yardstick across several drill rows to check spacing, then lay the stick along a drill row.
- Count all the tillers in 3 linear feet of one row.
- If headed, count the “mesh” on a few heads and record the average.
- See how many berries are forming per mesh.
- Note disease observations.
- Go to another wheat field and repeat.
Over the last eight years, the average tillers-per-square-foot for Delta wheat was 59.1. This year, the tillers equaled 59.6 — right about average. “That's a wholesome, positive statistic,” says Quinton.
Last year, Delta wheat had the lowest tiller counts ever found — 51 tillers per square foot. On top of that, the crop's head size was just average.
“That meant, we felt, 1-bushel-per-acre yield potential for every tiller in the square foot — a one-to-one ratio. That's just about what the ending yield was: Delta states all hovered around a 50-bushel crop. If the head size is good, then the one-to-one ratio is normally solid.”
That isn't always the case, however. Two years ago, the Delta had a relatively high tiller count — around 62 per square foot. “But we warned folks not to use the one-to-one ratio because head development was poor,” says Quinton. “We said to use a three-quarters-to-one ratio, for about a 48- to 49-bushel actual yield. Arkansas' final yield ended up around 48 bushels and Mississippi and Louisiana were even lower.
“Point is: head size is important in our evaluation. Two years ago, it meant a transition down in yield estimate. This year, head size on the crop is good, so I think the crop could be better than what a one-to-one ratio estimates. Not only do we have the 59 tiller count but, by and large, the head size is better than average. That indicates that several Delta counties will have 60-plus bushel yields. That may mean a yield record in Arkansas (the standing average record is 56 bushels).”
Arkansas normally has a “pretty good” quality wheat crop, says Quinton. This year, though, may be top-notch quality. “Millers everywhere should be looking at soft red wheat from the U.S. because we're finding a high-quality crop this year. This is great news and hopefully markets can be built on this information — that's a strong underlying motivation for having an organized event for Delta wheat growers. I think the value of this tour is apparent to all facets of the industry — growers, input suppliers, shippers, the Arkansas Wheat Promotion Board, Riceland, Bungee, Pioneer Seed and many more are all involved. It really is a useful event.
“Wheat doesn't get the same attention as other crops, but it has an important role. With the current economics, market price and production capabilities of the Delta, we need more acres planted here.”
The proportion of broadcast wheat fields in this year's Arkansas collection data was lower than normal. Last year, broadcast wheat fields sampled equaled about 30 percent of the total. Two years ago, broadcast fields in the sample were over half — mainly because, in the fall of 2001, weather conditions made it very hard to plant. Farmers, in desperation, went ahead and broadcast the seed.
In the fall of 2002, there was a real struggle in getting wheat planted again. The Delta had a dragged out, much-delayed planting season. “It wasn't the wipeout of 2001, but it was definitely rough,” says Quinton.
“Probably a third of the acres went in on time and achieved a good stand. Another 45 percent of the acres went in late and didn't get a good stand. Some 25 percent of the acres simply failed — they had to be plowed under. The crop turned out to have decent grain head development, but the stands were very thin.”
This time around, more care was taken in planting. Much of that was because the weather was finally favorable for planting. And it shows: “There's a very nice crop in the Delta with big heads and lots of berries per head.”
How has wheat improved in the Delta over time? “When I started doing these 30 years ago, the South had some of the sorriest, raggedy wheat. Even 20 years ago, wheat down here wasn't very good. However, in the last 15 years or so — since check-off funds have been put into Delta wheat production research, really — things have totally turned around. I've seen nothing but positive yearly gains in Delta wheat. I attribute that to an education and research effort geared to Delta producers.”
While such efforts are also in states like Illinois, Quinton says they haven't been “nearly as well-funded as efforts in Arkansas and Kentucky. Those two states really show what can happen when a dedicated wheat community commits resources. We don't have such a dedicated program in the Midwest.”
Not all is rosy, though. Quinton and his touring colleagues expect some wheat acre abandonment in the Delta. This isn't outside the norm: in recent years in Arkansas, there have instances of around 100,000 acres difference between what was planted and what was harvested.
“I don't think this year will see quite that severe of a number, but abandonment won't be the lowest we've seen either. Much of that abandonment will be due to flooding along the White River. That's too bad because some of the acres currently underwater were prime yielders — but they're gone, catfish food.”