Drought Drags On

By Vance Ehmke

For those of us who were hoping our current hard case drought would dry up and blow away, the reality is anything but. Instead, the new 3-month forecast promises more of the same and a lot of it.

Last fall when talking with Jeff Hutton from the National Weather Service in Dodge City, he speculated that 2022 was starting to look a lot like l956. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Kansas weather over the past 150 years knows that is the one single year you do not want to be like. It was the driest year in Kansas history.

Like 1956, our current drought didn’t just start last fall. According to our weather records, this drought started two years earlier. In 2020, we recorded 15.68 inches of total precip while in ’21, we received 16.85 inches against an average of roughly 19 inches a year of rain and snowmelt.

But this year we’re going over the edge. Halfway through the year we’ve received just over 6 inches of total precip when we should have gotten just over 10.  And the crops show it. After a five or 10-mile trip around the farm, you pass field after field of dryland corn and milo that has the slimmest of odds of surviving. Some of those you hope will produce enough ground cover to keep the ground from blowing next spring.

Still, one thing I’ve learned in this business is that you’ve got to be careful who you whine around—because somebody else always has it worse. Take Garden City, for example. Their official recording station, I’m told, is out at the airport. And so far this year, that spot on the earth has gotten only 1.94 inches of total precip.

So what about that new forecast? If you like hot and dry, you’ll love it. After a hotter and drier than normal July, NOAA says the next three months of August, September and October will be exactly the same—hot and dry.

Jeff Hutton thinks much of our current weather pattern is tied to what is now three years of cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Apparently that is a long time and is not a good thing because he adds that some long range hemispheric models are now pushing for the same equatorial Pacific conditions to continue unabated.

“So, IF much of the current weather pattern is tied to that area, then we could be in store for a long period of dryness going into October.

“But a new weather pattern establishes every fall and even with the same Pacific conditions, our area could still benefit with just minor shifts in weather systems,” Jeff says. “Still, I’m just not optimistic at this point—which means there is a risk that overall dryness will continue into 2023.”

However, there is some good news in all of this…….I guess.  Jeff says if 2023 is dry, it probably won’t be as dry as this year. Gee thanks!

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marit34Drought Drags On

Even at $12, Wheat May Lose Money

By Vance Ehmke

The good news is we have $12 wheat prices. The bad news is because of low projected yields caused by the on-going drought, many western Kansas wheat fields will do no better than break even.

Incredible as it may seem, even with the highest price of all time, at least half of the western Kansas wheat fields will actually lose money. And that is because of low yields. In recently released USDA yield projections, many counties like Lane, Scott, Wichita and Greeley will average about 27 bushels per acre.

As you know, in an average, half of the yields will be higher than 27 bushels per acre while half will be lower than 27. And if you’re in that bottom half, you’ve got a problem because your gross per acre is not going to cover all of your production costs.

Using K-State’s crop production budgets for southwest Kansas dryland wheat, with a price of $7.67 and a yield of 43 bushels per acre, breakeven gross is $322/acre. So while we have a lot higher price and a much lower yield, our breakeven gross remains the same. Today with $12 wheat and a yield of 27, we’re grossing only $324/acre. Bottom line is we are barely going to break even. Please cancel my order on the new Chevy pickup!

Things are slightly better if you look at the entirety of western Kansas where yields are projected to average just over 30 bushels per acre. With $12 wheat, High Plains wheat farmers should make between $35 and $40/acre. That assumes, however, yields don’t decline further because of continued lack of rainfall….and that our cost of production stops going up. And believe you me, I’m not betting very big on either one of those things breaking in my favor.

As you move into central Kansas, the economics look better because many of those counties have projected yields in the mid-40s.

So at the end of the day, what does all this mean? Looks like the wise old man was right: “There’s a reason why wheat goes to $12……….you ain’t got any!”

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wheatrancherEven at $12, Wheat May Lose Money

Popular Wheat Varieties May Not Be Top Yielders

By Vance Ehmke

In looking at the recently released list of the most popular wheat varieties planted in Kansas, I am reminded that just because a variety is planted on a lot of acres doesn’t mean you should be planting it.

Years ago in a conversation with former Scott City basketball coach and farmer/cattleman Harold Burnett, he pointed out that to hit a running rabbit, you’ve got to lead it.  And if farmers are using the list of most popular varieties as a source of what they ought to be planting, they are shooting at where the rabbit was, rather than where he’s going to be.

In brief, it takes time for a variety to grow in popularity as well as in acreage.  But during that time, other new and better varieties have been released. And as rapidly as wheat breeding programs are moving these days thanks to improvements in breeding technology, I’m saying the life of a new wheat variety today is no longer than 2 or 3 years.

A real good case in point is the AgriPro variety Monument. It’s the most popular variety in Kansas and has been the top-planted variety since 2019. But should you be planting it? I don’t think I would. If I wanted to plant an AgriPro variety, after looking at the K-State variety trial data for central Kansas, I think I’d go with the K-State/AgriPro release Bob Dole. In the 2021 trials, Monument had a central Kansas average yield of 72 while Bob Dole averaged over 80 bushels per acre. This is what they call yield drag. This is the price you pay for not keeping current on the varieties you are planting.

Here’s another good example. Again in central Kansas, the K-State variety Zenda is pretty popular. But in the 2021 K-State variety trials, it yielded just short of 72 bushels per acre. On the other hand, the newer Larry variety had an average yield of just under 80 bushels per acre. Do you want to be popular or do you want to make money?

Out here in western Kansas, the Colorado State University variety Langin shows up as a popular wheat. But in looking at newer releases like the Plains Gold Canvas, is it time to switch varieties? You be the judge. In the southwest Kansas irrigated and dryland trials, Canvas was in the top yield group 4 out of 4  times while Langin was in none. What’s more is that Canvas is resistant to wheat streak mosaic while Langin is moderately susceptible. I also like Canvas because it is very good to excellent on drought stress and has excellent straw strength—and beats Langin in both categories.

Let’s say you farm in Greeley County KS and you’re not planting KS Dallas because it’s not popular enough—yet. I guess the polite way to say this is just think of all the Federal and State income taxes you’re not having to pay because you’re not growing this variety. In the K-State variety trials, KS Dallas yields topped that entire location in 2021 and the variety was again in the top yield group the previous year.

Of course, it’s always better if you can look at data from more than just one year. And since we’re now only about 6 weeks from harvest, we’ll soon have an entirely new set of yield data to look at. Shortly after harvest, you’ll be able to find those data on the internet by going to K-State’s 2022 Wheat Crop Performance Trials. Or they’ll also be published in The Wheat Farmer/Row Crop Farmer Wheat Variety book that comes out in the summer. Do you want to shoot at where the rabbit was….or where he’ll be?

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marit34Popular Wheat Varieties May Not Be Top Yielders

Does $10 Wheat Mean More Acres?

By Vance Ehmke

After several years of selling wheat for $5 a bushel, we finally broke out of the rut when wheat prices exploded and more than doubled. But even with $10 wheat, if you’re betting on a big jump in the Kansas wheat acreage, it’s a bet you’re probably going to lose.

If anything, I hope the Kansas wheat acreage can hold onto the small gains it has made in the past year or so. But what’s going on nationally with wheat is a concern. In USDA’s prospective planting estimates for 2022, the “all wheat” acreage is pegged at 47.4 million acres—and that’ll be the fifth lowest wheat acreage since records were started in 1919.

Back several years ago, the Kansas wheat acreage had slipped to the smallest acreage planted in over 100 and 110 years. This probably happened because we farmers could make more money doing other things—like planting grain sorghum and corn. And if you look at the current K-State crop production budgets for 2022, that’s still the case—even with much higher wheat prices.

The problem is that corn and milo prices have also gone up. We’re not just short of wheat. We’re short of everything. And the markets reflect it.

Looking at the K-State budgets before the markets really took off, dryland wheat in southwest Kansas with a yield of 45 bushels per acre netted $21/acre. In a wheat-sorghum fallow rotation, wheat netted $14. Dryland milo with a yield of 81 bushels per acre netted $101/acre while dryland southwest Kansas corn with a yield of 82 netted $74. In the profitability race, wheat finishes last.

So, in this scenario, why would you plant more wheat? For that matter, why would you plant corn over milo? That’s another thing that is quite perplexing—especially for those of us in drought-prone  southwest Kansas. According to USDA’s 2022 prospective planting estimates, the sorghum acreage is projected to drop 15%. What am I missing?

Then after the markets really took off and wheat went from $7.67 to $10/bushel, wheat profitability jumped from $21 to $139/acre. Wow! But what happened to the profitability or milo and corn? Assuming a constant production cost and with a more current milo price of $7.44, milo profitability jumped from $101 to $263/acre. Corn net jumped from $74/acre to $262/acre.

So even with $10 wheat, we wind up in the same place: It is very difficult to make a case for growing more wheat.

The trap, however, is looking at these crops individually rather than as in a rotation. Based on work at K-State’s Tribune Experiment Station, growing continuous milo doesn’t work very well. When you go from a no-till wheat/sorghum/fallow rotation to a wheat/sorghum/sorghum rotation, yields of the second sorghum crop drop over 40% while incidence of crop failure goes through the roof.

Research at KSU’s Colby Experiment Station says the same thing. On an annualized profit basis, the most profitable rotation in western Kansas is the wheat/sorghum/fallow rotation. Actually, in this study, the old fashioned wheat/fallow/wheat rotation faired quite well and finished just behind the three-year rotation. All annual rotations were under water.

Critics of the Colby study say, “Well, there were some dry years in the study which reduced yield of the summer row crops.” And to that I say, “Have you taken a look at the forecast for April, May and June—not only drier than normal, but much hotter than normal?  I don’t think Mother Nature is going to let us forget what dry weather looks like.

It would help, however, if we could beef up the profitability of growing wheat. And we are moving in that direction. The new wheat gluten plants for Kansas will definitely increase demand for the crop. Plus, K-State wheat breeder Allan Fritz is working to increase the value of the crop by developing winter durum wheat varieties that may produce lower yields but much higher prices.

Another thing I’m really excited about are KSU efforts to develop high protein varieties that will allow us growers to capture high protein premiums. And I’m not talking about just high protein contents—I’m talking about off-the-charts protein contents. Allen tells me he’s working with varieties that produce protein values of 20%–and even higher!

So don’t count wheat out. We may never grow 10 million acres of wheat in Kansas again. But neither is the crop ever going to go away!

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marit34Does $10 Wheat Mean More Acres?

7$ Wheat?

This time last year who would have ever thought that we were sitting on and hatching a major bull market in the grains. Well, it’s here now and the only question for wheat is how high it’ll go.

There are a lot of factors that explain how we got here like being pulled along by very strong corn and soybean markets. The declining wheat acreage has also helped a bunch. For instance, the 2020 Kansas wheat acreage was the smallest in over 100 years. And the carryover is shrinking.

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marit347$ Wheat?

Three finalists selected for 2020 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award®

By the Hutchinson News

KANSAS—Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Kansas Leopold Conservation Award recognizes landowners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

In Kansas the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

This year’s three finalists are:

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marit34Three finalists selected for 2020 Kansas Leopold Conservation Award®

Alibates flint arrowhead stored in Kansas State Historical Society collection

arrowhead ehmke seed

Arrow Point from the Ehmke Site, 14LA311

This arrow point was recovered from a camp and kill site in Lane County during excavation by Kansas Historical Society Archeologists. The site seems to have had multiple occupations from the Paleoindian period through the Late Ceramic period. The feature this arrow point was recovered in was believed to be associated with an Upper Republican occupation. The side-notched point is possibly made of Alibates flint, a silicified or agatized dolomite from the Canadian River valley in the Texas panhandle.

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marit34Alibates flint arrowhead stored in Kansas State Historical Society collection

Where Have All The Pheasants Gone?

By Vance Ehmke

It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when opening day of pheasant hunting season was a pretty big deal. But my, oh my, how times have changed.

Back then every motel room in the county had been booked up for a year in advance. There was not a box of shotgun shells left on a store shelf anywhere. You had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to get gas. And it was really exciting—it was almost like Christmas. The American Legion was packed with people you had never seen before –and every other one had a shell and game vest on along with an orange cap. They were all dressed in brown. And the main topic of the evening was where you had the best luck finding birds. Or how quick did you limit out?
But the main question today is, “Did you see any birds at all?”

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marit34Where Have All The Pheasants Gone?

The Last Wild Horse Herd

By Vance Ehmke
Wheat & More…..or Less

The Old West was officially closed in 1890.  But it wasn’t until over 50 years later that the last of the wild horses disappeared from Lane County, KS.

Longtime resident Eldon Wancura, who now lives in Dighton, explains that he grew up on a farm and ranch that straddled the Lane-Finney line west of Highway 23. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, there was a wild horse herd in this area which at that time was still largely open range. There were few, if any roads, and only a very few trails and they were not maintained.”

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marit34The Last Wild Horse Herd