LITTLE ROCK -- Winter wheat production in Arkansas has fallen on hard times in the last few years.

Planted acreage has dropped drastically from 1.1 million acres in 2001. It dipped to 950,000 acres in 2002, then plunged to 700,000 acres in 2003 and 670,000 acres in 2004. The 10-year average acreage for the state is just over 1 million acres.

"I'm afraid the acreage will be down again this year," said Dr. Jason Kelley, wheat and feed grains specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Kelley said Arkansas farmers are telling him they're reluctant to grow wheat for three reasons, including the skyrocketing price of urea fertilizer and the relatively low price of wheat. Also, producers have made good money on early-maturing soybeans, "and they want to go back with early beans next year," he said.

"Producers had great luck with early beans (60- to 70-bushel averages in some fields), and prices last year were really good. Also, soybeans fix their own nitrogen, so the crop needs no expensive nitrogen fertilizer like wheat.”

Is Arkansas in danger of losing wheat as a viable crop? "I don't think so. Next year, wheat may look attractive if the crop price is up and the fertilizer price is down. Also, soybeans may not look as promising."

He said the wheat acreage depends on three factors as it does every year: the price of the crop at planting, the price of fertilizer and weather conditions at planting. "Wheat is a good cash flow crop, so producers will still want to plant wheat," Kelley noted.

He said farmers typically like to plant seed into a little ground moisture, but it had been excessively dry until last week. Excessive rains since then have continued to delay farmers from planting.

Kelley offered several production tips to farmers to maximize yields and keep production costs down. "First, select varieties that have a good foliar disease package," he said. "Varieties should be resistant to stripe rust and leaf rust to eliminate the need for a fungicide application in the spring." Kelley said producers must control ryegrass in the fall. "You'll lose a lot of yield potential by delaying herbicide applications until spring."

Nitrogen fertilizer management is also important. “Timing is everything if you're trying to get the most for your dollar, Kelley said. “Target the first nitrogen for late January or early February. "Never allow delaying the first application of nitrogen into late February will reduce yield potential. Farmers should plant in fields that are well drained, or they should construct drain furrows to carry off excess water.”

He urged farmers who plant late or who plant following rice, corn or grain sorghum to apply 30-40 pounds of fall nitrogen. With high fertilizer prices, farmers may want to avoid the application, but Kelley said fall fertilizer could help a late-planted crop get off to a good start and improve yield potential.

Meanwhile, he said, there's a wide array of wheat varieties for farmers to choose from. "We have 100 entries in the university's variety testing program, although not all of those are on market yet. While it's good to have a lot to choose from, it can be hard to sort through all the varieties to find what will perform best for your farm."

He urged farmers to use the online version of Wheat Update at www.uaex.edu to help them decide. Each county extension office also has a copy. Wheat Update, which came out in September, has disease ratings, yield results and agronomic traits.

For more information about wheat production, contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the UofA Division of Agriculture.