Wheat and More….or Less blog
by Vance Ehmke
Some years back when they first started talking about Global Warming I asked the state climatologist, who was in K-State’s physics department, what he thought. He said, “We’ll know for sure….in 100 years.”
Right now, though, after the wettest October and the wettest May in Kansas history, and the slowest planting in US history, maybe instead of Global Warming we should be talking about Global Wettening.
With right at 30 inches of total precip last year, 2018 was the wettest year in all of the 44 years that we’ve been farming here in western Lane County. That trend continues into 2019. Normally to date we would have gotten a little over 6 inches of rain and snow melt, but we’ve already over 10 inches.
And with May and June being the wettest two months of the year, I’m getting nervous about what wheat harvest is going to look like.
This is a lot like the winter of 1992-1993 when we got 65 inches of snow—instead of our normal 18 to 20 inches. If all of the winter-received moisture had been snow instead of some coming as rain, this past winter would have been identical to the 65 inches. And as they say, trends in weather are way more likely to continue than to change, so it’s interesting looking at what happened in the rest of l993.
After the very wet winter, crop conditions started off great…but it kept on raining. Consequently wheat harvest was delayed. North central Kansas got 12 to 17 inches of rain in July, for instance. Statewide, substantial acreages were lost, yield prospects plummeted and quality declined. By August 1, 10% of the Kansas wheat crop was still in the field.
And while it was wet here this past winter, we have no idea as to what it was like north and east of Kansas. A University of Nebraska agronomist stopped here last week and told me of 60 and 90-ton chunks of ice that eastern Nebraska farmers found in their fields—over 5 miles from the rivers. They’re hoping the ice will be melted by the end of summer! Also entire fields covered with 2 to 6 and 8 feet of sand. We got off easy.
So what is going on? Over the past several years, our weather has varied from extremely wet to extremely dry to extremely wet to extremely dry and here we are now being extremely wet. I’ve talked to several K-State professors about the extremes we’re experiencing and they all say this is exactly what was predicted to happen with global climate change.
This winter I heard Jeff Hutton with National Weather Service in Dodge City talk about our recent weather. He said never before have we had more than 3 years in a row of above average conditions for rainfall and summer row crop conditions. “However, we just went through the fifth.”
Those remarks remind me a lot of what I call The Nice Nineties. Back then we had nine years of wetter than normal conditions which resulted in very high corn and sorghum yields. But the longer the trend continued, the more concerned I got. Statisticians and accountants often talk about “gravitating to the means.” What that means is that over time, things average out. And when it came time to average out the nineties, it was ugly. I call those following years The Naughty Aughts. In at least one of those years, the entire sorghum crop was lost. In another year, you harvested only half the acres planted. I still remember farmers swaggering into the coffee shop to brag about their top field—that made 30 bushels per acre!
But the statisticians were right. The nine good years combined with the nine bad years resulted in a perfect long term average. So when are we going to start gravitating?
All this reminds me on another conversation I had years ago with no-till guru Virgil Simpson in Ransom, Kan. As we were driving around looking at his fields during one of those wet years, he said things looked then a lot like they did in 1951, an incredibly wet year with regular flooding. Virgil said we all remember how wet it was. But he says what we all forgot is that after 1951 was done with us, we had to wait another 2 or 3 or 4 years before we saw our next spring rain. In this case, the wet years ushered in a vicious drought. While shorter than the drought of the thirties, the drought of the fifties was incredibly sharp.
And finally, Virgil’s comments about drought brought to mind a conversation with a Texas Panhandle farmer during the drought of the Naughty Aughts. Back then he said he had given up on praying for rain. He said he was now praying for dust…because that prayer worked every time.read more
By Vance Ehmke
My great grandparents homesteaded here in western Kansas back in 1885. I always thought it was a pretty big deal to be a fourth-generation farmer — until the bones of Lane County told me otherwise.
Here on our farm we have a state historical site, 14 LA 311, to be exact. It’s one of the tallest points around, surrounded by 6 to 15 percent slopes. But what makes it a turbocharged Native American campsite is that wrapping around it are a number of playa lakes including a 125-acre lagoon.
The prehistorical Native Americans figured it out pretty quick: As long as there is water in those ponds, we no longer have to hunt. Everything will come to us — including mammoths, camels, prehistoric horses, the modern bison, as well as its gigantic predecessor the longhorn bison, along with deer, elk, turtles and waterfowl you can’t believe.
We’ve found bones from all those species, as well as evidence from 10 to 15 different Native American cultures spread out over thousands of years. We’ve been here four going on five generations, but we weren’t the first by a long shot. The archeologists tell me there were 400 to 500 generations here before us. I’ve got a black-flint Goshen spear, or dart point, in our collection that could be as much as 11,000 years old. I don’t know where that Native American was born, and I don’t know where he died. But for at least part of his life, he called Lane County home.
In that general area, our family and archeology teams have found a good deal of artifacts over the years — for instance, Native American artifacts stretching from Apache all the way back to the ancient tribes of Clovis and Hell Gap. The Clovis hunted mammoths in Lane County at the end of the last Ice Age, but the Hell Gap did not since mammoths had become extinct by the time they arrived. Louise and I found a mammoth tooth on the hill that later was identified as a Columbian mammoth, the largest of the mammoths living 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. At shoulder height, it stood 12 to 15 feet tall and weighed 10,000 to 20,000 pounds. That’s a lot of meat!
Additionally, we’ve found many other fascinating prehistoric markers like huge bison bones, teeth and foot bones from the prehistoric horse, turtle shells and some occasional ivory. I love the clink of ivory shards! We’ve also found a fair amount of burned bone as well as tiny little snail shells. The archeologists who visit the site tell me they are a lot more excited about early horse artifacts than mammoths because every year somewhere in Kansas someone finds a mammoth. Horses are just rare.
By the way, species like the horse and camel originated in the central and southern High Plains, later becoming extinct here but only after escaping likely out the Bering Strait. Poetically, the Spanish brought the horse back to its birth place 400 to 500 years ago. When it became extinct, it was about the size of a small Quarter Horse.
You can find evidence of more recent Native American cultures like Apache at ground level. Same with Comanches, who drove out the Apaches. After the Comanches crossed the Arkansas River heading south for the last time, the last of the Plains tribes moved in: Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapahoe, but they were now using metal points that have mostly rusted away.
But if you’re looking for the really old cultures and the really old bones, you’ve got to dig for them. That’s because about 7,000 years ago our climate changed to a 2,500-year period of severe and long-lasting droughts accompanied by incredible dust storms that brought in our present topsoil on suffocating winds out of the northwest. When they say wind-blown loess, they are not kidding! Anybody who’s ever dug a pit for a grain bin or a trench silo can easily spot the 2- to 3-foot thick layer of dark soil on top of the yellow paleo soil.
When digging a basement for an addition to our house some years back, I spotted a mammoth tooth lying on top of the yellow soil — right where it was supposed to be. It’s always fun walking new terraces or waterways looking for prehistoric bones. Layton found a 10,000-year-old Hell Gap spear point made out of Smoky Hill jasper on such a walk. And let me tell you what, finding artifacts like that is every bit as thrilling as finding a $100 bill blowing down the street!
This past spring while digging some 15-foot deep pits for grain bins, I found what appeared to be some kind of vertebrae, which the Sternberg Museum in Hays initially identified as from a 10-million-year-old rhinoceros or early ancestor of the camel or giraffe. Others at the Sternberg instead say it may be another 10,000-year-old mammoth.
Some years back a neighboring farmer got the urge to use his earth-moving equipment to dig the 75 to 100 feet to the groundwater table. After hearing about his gigantic hole and dirt pile, Louise and I visited the site and instantly found an unearthed mammoth tooth lying on the ground. We took it to town, gave it to him and he said, “Oh, that’s nothing. There are bones all the way down to the bottom.”
We don’t have any T-Rexs or other dinosaurs here in Lane County because most of Kansas was under an inland salt sea during that time frame (60 to 90 million years ago). Instead, you’ll find some of the best shark teeth and mosasaurus hunting in the world in Gove County to the north. When the Rocky Mountains rose up from tectonic activity, the sea was drained and left the prairie grasslands as we know it today.
While we’ve found tons of animal bones, there is always the possibility that human bone is out there, too. According to oral history, a family of black settlers homesteaded on some of our land, but they all died from a measles infection. A witcher from central Kansas volunteered to find the graves. He located all seven family members plus three Native American graves on the historical site a half mile away. Skeptical about witching, I called a physics professor at K-State and asked what he thought about divining. I was surprised when said there might just be something to it.
So what does all this mean? Anytime you’re digging a hole, dig carefully. You never know what you’re going to find. Could be a mammoth tooth, a Native American spear head or knife point or some other link to our past. You just never know. But you’d better be looking!read more