Whatever happens with the new wheat crop, many Arkansas wheat producers will look back on this year's yields fondly — the state produced some excellent wheat. Still, with burgeoning fertilizer and fuel prices, uncertainty stalks the crop's new plantings.
“I'm scratching my head about wheat,” says Mark Nix, a Wynne, Ark., farmer. “The price of fertilizer is throwing a kink into our plans. There's a 20 percent jump in prices, at least. Urea has been quoted at over $240 and that was a couple of weeks back so it's probably gone up since. And that doesn't take into account the higher fuel costs. I may make a decision to plant wheat on a day-by-day basis.”
Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension wheat specialist, has heard of urea costs in excess of $275, compared to $220 last fall. “If that's the case that means $5 to $10 per acre more in input costs,” says Kelley.
This year, wheat is “iffy,” says Gerald Jackson, who farms between Brinkley and Moro, Ark. “I don't know what I'm going to do. You know, $300 urea is tough to handle. I haven't put a pencil to it yet, but I suspect the economics aren't going to be pretty.”
But planting may still make sense, says Nix. “A number of other farmers are telling me they aren't going to plant. That may be an opportunity for our operation. If everyone is leaving wheat alone, the price might go up.”
Nix farms right at 2,000 acres alongside Crowley's Ridge just north of Wynne. Most of that acreage is planted to rice and soybeans. In past years, he's double-cropped as much as 1,100 acres of wheat. Lately, though, he's dropped to around 700 acres.
“(The latest harvest) was fun!” he says. “The Lord blessed us in a great way. Our average yield was in the high 80s. At first, we thought it would be in the 90s, but adding in the dregs we ended up around 88 bushels.”
Nix's yield was a homerun. In the area's silt soils, wheat producers are happy to get 65 bushels per acre.
“Mark's very progressive in terms of trying new technology and finding new ways to cut input costs. He uses a furrow-roller for his wheat,” says Rick Wimberley, Cross County Extension agent. “He was working with bedded wheat for a few years to take advantage of good drainage. Last year, he furrow-irrigated soybeans that he then no-tilled wheat into.”
Nix says he'll never be confident judging wheat before harvest again. “I thought it would be a solid crop. But there were fields I'd pull into and say, ‘Well, this one won't do so well.’ Then, lo and behold, it would cut better than a field that looked prettier.”
This year's rice crop has treated Nix much the same. “I thought my rice looked good — but it's been great so far, exceptional. I've had 200 bushel-plus rice in a number of fields. Some Clearfield we planted hasn't done as well as that but was still around 180 bushels.”
One of the things that may have contributed to the wheat yields being so high is an extra shot of nitrogen.
“I've changed my program a little. In the past, it was mid-February when I put out the first shot of nitrogen on wheat. On February's tail end or the first week of March, the second shot went out. Then, if I thought a third shot was warranted, I'd put it out a couple of weeks later.
The last couple of years, though, Nix's first fertilizer has been put out in January. That way, “it's there, available for when the plants need it. Instead of the plant waiting on me, the nitrogen is already there.”
Nix usually applies around 125 units to his wheat. Some 135 to 140 units were put out this year.
Kelley says other growers in Arkansas have made the switch to an earlier application. This year, those who didn't “wanted to wait until February even though the weather was good in January. When February rolled around, the weather wasn't as good and the applications were delayed. That hurt the crop (overall).”
While wheat planting is nearly upon him, Nix's immediate concern is his soybean crop. In much of the Delta, the crop's greenness and grain moisture level is giving combine operators fits. Nix's is more of the same.
“Our beans are very different this year — major green spots in the field,” says Nix, in the shadow of a farmhand working on a combine plugged with soybean debris. “The yield monitor says moisture content is around 11 percent normally. But when I hit the very green spots, moisture levels drop to 8 percent. The grain is drier in the green spots! It's the darnedest thing.”
An hour's drive southwest from Nix, Gerald Jackson has a wheat-cropping system of his own.
“In a typical year, we'll drain rice a bit early if we know we're going to put wheat on it,” he says. “We try and cut it dry and get our levees torn down.
Typically, we go over it with a levee disk or a splitter. I bought a 14-foot slicker to use as well.
“I don't want to waste time or effort. Last time out, I had 130 acres ready to go in around 10 hours. When diesel costs $1.40, it's hard to justify doing anything else. I try to start getting wheat in the ground around Oct. 10. I try not to plant too early, though. That's hard sometimes because I get antsy waiting.”
Jackson usually plants 300 acres of wheat double-cropped behind rice. That's just the way the rotation works — and his landlords like wheat crops.
“Now, around here, we're pressed into rice in, rice out. There isn't a luxury of a couple years of beans or beans/corn/rice.”
With wheat, Jackson shoots for 70 bushels per acre and has been successful in hitting that number. This year, he cut a 73-bushel wheat crop and then a 58-bushel soybean crop.
“Sitting on a combine, I was thinking — and there's plenty of time to think when riding a combine — that folks are willing to plant 40-bushel beans at $7. But they won't plant 70-bushel wheat at $4. Doing that means the same money for much less risk. It's a lot less work too. I can't figure it.”
Kelley says he's found the same thing. “I think it's just a mindset with some producers that they can't make money on wheat. In reality it can be profitable and helps cash flow.”
With his wife, Rhonda, and nephew, Jackson farms about 1,500 acres total — “mostly all in one clump. We grow rice, wheat, soybeans and corn.”
Anyone wanting to give rice/wheat double-cropping a shot should make sure to cut rice dry and avoid any ruts, he says. You also have to have a good seedbed.
“I don't think earliness is a big factor. We burn the rice stubble, knock down the levees and no-till the wheat seed in. I don't roll the field — just plant right in. I may even plant the seed into dry dirt, very shallow.
“Someone asked me, ‘Well what happens if you do that and it doesn't sprout?’ My answer is, ‘Well, what if you work the soil and then get a 3-inch rain?’ You're taking a chance no matter what direction you go.”
The system is simple if you've got a decent no-till drill. “There's nothing to it. The drills we have now will get the seed at the depth you want, right where you want it. The stand comes up uniform and pretty.”
Geese are beginning to be a problem for Jackson's wheat. “You know, 10,000-bird flocks aren't unusual. Some days we can't keep them out of the field. They love to land on cold, windy days — miserable. Someone will holler, ‘The geese are back!’ and everyone moans because we've got to try to chase them off. It's getting harder and harder to do that. They come right back.”