Some Arkansas farmers would probably rather forget about the 2002-03 winter wheat crop. Farmers have struggled with the crop from planting to harvest.

The problems started in the fall when rain limited farmers to planting 700,000 acres of wheat, significantly less than the 960,000 acres planted the year before and the 10-year average of 1.07 million acres, according to the Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service. Rain and flooding in the spring and early summer made harvest difficult or impossible. With the harvest all but finished, the statistics service is estimating that farmers only cut 580,000 acres, the smallest harvest in recent memory.

“It's been a long, drawn-out harvest because of the wet weather,” said Jason Kelley, wheat specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Wheat harvested early was as good a quality as could be expected. Some remaining wheat got rained on several times, and test weights plummeted.”

Kelley said there was so much moisture that wheat in isolated fields sprouted. “Once it does that, it's debatable as to whether it's cost efficient to run a combine through it or burn it. When it sprouts, the dockage is substantial.”

Kelley said farmers were delayed getting the wheat out of their fields because the rain didn't allow the grain to dry enough for cutting. This also meant a delay in planting soybeans behind wheat. He said this could well result in a late soybean harvest and delayed or prevented wheat planting in the fall. Wheat farmers could be facing another small crop, Kelley noted.

How much wheat farmers plant typically depends on wheat prices at planting, the price of other commodities and the weather. A dry fall means a larger window in which to plant.

Meanwhile, Dwayne Beaty, Extension area wheat and soybean agronomist, said he was “pleasantly surprised” with yields for the university's verification fields. Verification fields across the state are designed to demonstrate to farmers that Extension recommendations based on university research can help farmers achieve better yields.

Beaty said even though it's been a bad year, the average verification field will yield in the mid-60-bushel range, which he estimates will be 12 to 15 bushels better than he state average. The lowest verification yield reported was in the mid-50s, and the highest was 77 bushels.

“One advantage we have with the wheat verification program is that we're out there in the participating farmers' fields every week, and we're able to monitor conditions and apply nitrogen accordingly.

“For instance, in one field in Monroe County, a farmer was anxious to apply nitrogen. But we had him wait a couple of weeks for the plants to recover from the heavy rain so it would be better able to take up nitrogen. The field turned out really well, and the farmer was glad he waited.”

Beaty said that south Arkansas generally had an “extremely good crop. Some 80-bushel wheat was reported in Ashley and Chicot counties.” He said the wheat crop faced a greater challenge in north Arkansas from rains and flooding.

Beaty said later harvested fields in the state didn't fare well. “We're hearing price discounts of up to 30 percent.” He said some farmers faced with low yields, poor quality, low prices and delays in soybean planting have burned wheat fields without harvesting or baled the wheat to sell for livestock.


Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.