Murphy's Law at work in Texas wheat crop

Murphy must be a wheat farmer. How else can you explain the multiple calamities that have afflicted wheat crops across the Southwest for the past two years? Anything that could have gone wrong, did.

Production has been off, hampered by drought, diseases, insects, and too much rain at the wrong time. Prices remain dreadful.

Wayne Burns, Fannin County, Texas, wheat, corn, milo and cattle farmer, says 2001 wheat yields may not be much better than they were in 2000. But the reasons behind the drop are not the same.

“The yield monitor on the combine last year indicated where we had stripe rust problems,” Burns says. “We could identify infected areas. Yields dropped from around 70 bushels per acre to 25.”

“We expect to see a similar pattern this year, but the drop will be on flat, heavy soils that stayed too wet. Our light land looks pretty good.”

Burns says he has a “fair crop” but admits it has been “an unusual year” with a lot of production problems.

“Back in the fall, it was too dry to plant until it started raining and got too wet,” he says. “We started planting in the dust; otherwise we wouldn't have gotten anything in the ground.”

He usually plants 2,000 acres of wheat but only got in 1,600.

He was still late. “We were planting wheat around Thanksgiving and we like to finish by early November.”

He says he did not have time to get a pre-emergence herbicide on most of his wheat. “We were lucky just to get it in,” he says. “Now, we're seeing a lot of ryegrass in the wheat.”

He and Jim Swart, an IPM agent with Texas A&M Commerce, say the ryegrass problem is widespread across northeast Texas.

“I don't think it will hurt yield much,” Swart says.

“It will delay harvest, though,” says Burns. “We have to wait another week to 10 days after the wheat is mature for the ryegrass to dry down enough to harvest. If we don't, we pull in green seed that the combine will not blow out.

“With wheat prices as low as they are, we can't afford any dockage.”

He'll ratchet up the combine fan a bit to blow the dry ryegrass seed out when the crop dries sufficiently.

Swart says much of the ryegrass came through in fields where past rotations indicate no infestation should occur. They contend that fall weather patterns contributed to the ryegrass problems.

“But we have enough in the fields now that we'll have to manage for it next year,” Swart says. “There will be a lot of seed left.”

Burns treated about 100 acres with Hoelon in January and those fields are relatively clean of ryegrass. “But I couldn't see any ryegrass when I applied the herbicide,” he says. “We didn't expect it to be this heavy. Evidently, the ryegrass came up with the wheat.”

Fertilizing this crop also created some challenges. “We got nitrogen on it, but we had to fly everything on,” he says. “We couldn't get in with a ground rig.”

He says ground fertilizer application generally performs better.

Disease pressure has not been particularly bad. “We've seen a little septoria but not much,” Swart says.

“We've seen no stripe rust,” he adds. “We identified susceptible varieties last year and have moved away from those. We were watching for it.”

He says stripe rust is rarely a problem in this area and most observers were surprised at its intensity last season.

“We had a few armyworms in mid-April,” Burns says, “but we caught them before they did any damage. Parathion and Lorsban took care of them.”

Swart says Hessian fly, an increasingly important problem for wheat farmers in some parts of the state, may be present this year but are not significant, compared to the other problems farmers have had.

“We'll probably see some broken stems,” he says.

Burns has not seen Hessian fly in his wheat, but he expects trouble from grasshoppers.

“I think they'll be worse than they were last year,” he says. “The wheat is mature enough to avoid damage but grain sorghum and corn are vulnerable.”

Burns thinks a different species of grasshopper may be the culprit. “It seems to be different, and rains that usually bring on a fungus that wipes them out has not been effective against these.”

Burns says will harvest wheat in early to mid-June and hopes to see some market rally before then.

“I haven't sold anything,” he says. “I just haven't seen anything that justified locking in a price.”

He says the loan deficiency payment will help. “But wheat prices should be at least $1 per bushel higher. It's a lot less trouble to get money from the market than from the LDP.”

He says the last time he raised wheat and did not need the government payment was 1996. “That was just after the last farm bill and prices have been low ever since.”

He says changing his operation to avoid some of the calamities he's suffered the past few years makes little sense. “We don't have the same problems two years in a row,” he says, “so we can't adjust production.”

He quit raising cotton three years ago. “I had grown some every year from 1961 through 1999, but labor, production expense and insects convinced me to give it up. I don't miss it.”

He thinks technology, such as yield monitors, will improve farm efficiency. “We can identify light spots in the fields and determine what went wrong. We saw where stripe rust hurt us last year. We've also found the rows around tree lines may be less productive because of cold damage.

“Monitors and other technology will help us adjust production practices in certain areas.”

Improving production is one part of the equation, but he's also convinced that before wheat farmers do well again, the prices will have to go up.

e-mail: [email protected]

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