Northeast Texas wheat farmers are breathing a huge sigh of relief as they harvest what appears to be a much-better-than-average crop instead of what many expected as late as six weeks ago would be a near disaster.
In the first days of harvest, farmers in Hunt, Fannin and Grayson Counties were cutting wheat averaging around 70 to 80 bushels per acre. Some reported fields pushing 100 bushels per acre.
“About six weeks ago we didn’t know if we would make a crop,” said Pat Fallon, who pulled into a field where his brother Mike was combining what appeared to be yields in the 70- to low-80-bushel per acre range and where Jim Swart, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist, and this reporter were analyzing yield prospects.
The crop got off to a bad start, farmers say. Drought at planting time delayed germination. A few fields received a bit of moisture in late October and germinated. Most fields were bare until a Christmas Day rain provided enough moisture to get the rest of the crop up. Still, the stand was ragged, non-uniform and offered little hope of producing anything close to an average crop.
And then three cold snaps seemed to have destroyed much of the wheat.
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We caught up with Mike by phone as he maneuvered his combine across the Grayson County field. “It’s cutting pretty good,” he said. “We’re making better than we expected from a tough year. A lot of wheat was not even up in January, and I haven’t seen any freeze damage.”
He was in his second day of harvest and said yields were running into the 80-bushel range in some fields. Early test weights had been low but the wheat he cut later was much better, closer to 60.
“If these yields hold up, I’ll be tickled to death,” he said. “This year we got fooled, but in a good way.”
Across the highway, Chad Wetzel was harvesting a field of hard red winter wheat. The Fallons grow only soft, as do most wheat farmers in this region because yields are higher and the stalks stand better. “Only about 1 percent of the wheat acreage is in hard wheat,” Swart said.
He added that the area is a good fit for soft red winter wheat and is “more like Arkansas and the Mid-South than other parts of Texas. We often see a six- to 10-bushel advantage with soft wheat. We may see more than that this year.”
Wetzel was also pleased with early prospects. “It’s cutting pretty well,” he said, also from his combine. “The hard winter wheat is a little rough, and it’s just getting dry enough to cut.”
“We have a good market for hard wheat in Sherman so we plant about half and half,” Wetzel said. “It’s an easy haul from here.”
He had not started cutting any of the soft wheat but said the hard was yielding “pretty well. It will not do as well as the soft, but we make up the difference with a better price.”
He was also a bit surprised at how well the wheat is turning out after the start it had and the late freezes. “We’re making a little above expectations,” he said. “About 75 percent of this crop came up after that Christmas rain. We had bare fields in January, and it was a little scary. We’ve been fortunate the last two years and stayed at profitable (yield) levels.”
Dodged a bullet
Ronnie Lumpkins farms in Fannin and Hunt Counties and is thankful he has a crop to harvest. “We could have lost it,” he said. “But we think we have a lot of 60- and 80-bushel wheat. A couple of times after planting we could have been headed to a wreck. We haven’t seen any freeze damage, so we may have dodged a bullet.”
He says this could be the second straight year his wheat crop has beaten the odds. “Last year we had a lifetime crop,” he said.
He’s also pleased with how well his corn looks and says he may have had a year or two in the last 40 that looked as promising this time of year, “but there haven’t been many that looked this good.”
He’s not taking anything for granted. “We don’t have the corn in the truck,” he said. “And it’s not made until then. We will need some more rain and I’d like to get an inch or an inch-and-a-half every Friday night and then Monday we would be dry enough to get back in the field.”
He says a 20-day stretch without rain could put him back into a deficit situation.
Northeast Texas has benefitted from timely moisture since that Christmas rain and snow event broke the drought, at least to some extent. Swart says the wheat responded well following that rain and that ample tillering made up for a lot of delayed growth. And timely rains kept it going.
“Not every area is this good,” Lumpkins said. “Areas to the West, East and South of us have not been as fortunate.”
Jay Norman also farms Fannin and Hunt County acreage and agrees that this crop exceeds expectations. Early average, after just two or three days of harvest, was running at 72 bushels per acre but some fields could hit 100.
He’s also seen “no sign of freeze damage.”
Swart says the exceptional yields producers are making show how resilient the wheat plant is. “It’s a pretty forgiving crop,” he said.
He also noted that the area did see some disease pressure but most farmers sprayed tebuconazole fungicide. Cost, at about $1.30 per acre, makes that application “a bargain. Fungicide application would have definitely paid this year,” he said. “Break-even for using the product is only one bushel per acre, counting material cost and application expense. That’s pretty easy to get, and most growers sprayed.
“Many farmers sprayed late, after they realized they would actually make a crop.”
Swart said he is surprised at how well this crop is turning out. “With the low temperatures we had I can’t understand why it’s as good as it is. And it got off to such a bad start with most not coming up until after Christmas.”
Most times farmers don’t like surprises, but they’ll take this one and count themselves lucky. Most wheat acreage across the Southwest has not fared as well.