Wheat harvest delays spells lower yields discounts

Ellis County cotton and grain farmer Ricky Johnson had a near ideal window to plant wheat last fall. Moisture was adequate and the crop got off to a good start. It did well through the winter and into early spring, dodging a bullet from an April freeze and showing promise of 50-bushel per acre yields.

Disaster didn’t hit until rains began in May and persisted through June and into July.

Johnson was far from through with harvest the second week of July, a time when he’s ordinarily vacationing with his family.

He didn’t expect last fall to be cutting wheat after Independence Day. He didn’t expect to have to go to Kansas to buy a four-wheel drive combine. And he didn’t expect to need to borrow 50-inch wheels to put on the front of that machine to muck through fields to cut a badly damaged crop.

“I have 700 to 800 acres left to cut,” Johnson said as he readied the four-wheel drive to harvest a field just outside the Waxahachie city limits in mid-July. And he said he was fortunate. “ I saw a lot of wheat in Oklahoma still underwater.”

Johnson got some wheat out early but not much. “If I didn’t have the four-wheel drive combine and wide flotation tires I couldn’t cut now,” he said.

He has anther, two-wheel drive machine but said it is useless in muddy conditions.

“I also cut less in a day than I normally do. I can run from daylight to dark and have to quit. I can’t combine in the mud in the dark.”

Johnson says he’s harvesting about half as much acreage as usual in a day.

And he’s getting hammered with quality discounts. “Sprout damage is running about 12 percent on my hard wheat and it’s grading mostly 5, on the border of wheat and feed wheat. Any worse and we’d be selling feed.”

He expected sprout damage to be higher. “It stayed wet so long, I thought it would be worse,” he said.”

Test weight has run 56 to 57 and he expects to average no more than 20 or 30 bushels per acre. “We may see some hit 40 but not much. And we had potential to make 50 to 60 bushels per acre.”

He says soft wheat will not do as well. “I’ve shelled some and sprout damage may top 50 percent. That will be feed wheat.”

“But some of our growers will not harvest at all,” said integrated pest management specialist Glen Moore. “A lot of them don’t have the equipment to get it out.”

“This was the best crop I’d seen in years,” Johnson said.

“Prices were up, too,” said Moore.

Johnson hoped to get all his wheat cut before the end of July. “I need to be done in about 10 days or a lot of grass and weeds will push through,” he said. “It’s still relatively clean but I can see weeds coming on.”

Johnson said this is a good year to be diversified. “I hope to make up for some of the wheat losses with a good corn and cotton crop. Diversification is a luxury. It keeps us in business during bad years.”

He also runs a cow/calf operation and said cattle prices have been good and hay supplies ought to be plentiful this year, “if we can get it baled.”

He said the corn crop looked good in mid-July and had enough moisture to see it to harvest. “Corn is finished,” he said. “I’ll start cutting corn the first week in August.”

He said the crop was “pretty much on time.”

Cotton suffered a slight delay because of cool, damp weather but Moore says it will catch up as heat units begin to accumulate.

Grass and weed problems have been a challenge. “We were able to get a hooded sprayer in by mid-July,” Johnson said. “We hope top get weeds under control. Some fields are worse than others. But we were out of the fields completely for about a month. We could do nothing at all because of constant rain. We ran a hooded sprayer one day and then it started raining and it rained every day for four weeks.”

Moore said cotton insect problems have not been “out of the ordinary. We had a few flea hoppers but with success of the boll weevil eradication program the weevil is almost out of the picture.”

Johnson plants almost all Roundup Ready and Bollgard cotton. Bt cotton is a good investment, he says. “When we have to spray worms in cotton we’ve already had enough damage to pay the technology fee. It’s a good product and we have to use available technology. Every year is different and sometimes we may not recover the technology fee.”

But it’s a good bet, he said.

“Bt varieties give us a window of opportunity to avoid pest problems,” Moore said.

“It’s also a time advantage,” Johnson said. “With Bollgard cotton we don’t have to stop cutting corn in August to spray cotton for worm infestations.”

Moore said plant growth regulators pose the biggest management challenge for this cotton crop. “We’ll be putting on pretty heavy rates for this area.”

“Glen scouts our cotton for us and he’s had us apply Pix with flea hoper treatments,” Johnson said.

He’d already applied 8 to 10 ounces and expected to need more. Moore anticipated as much as 40 ounces per acre in some fields. “That’s unusual.”

Johnson started farming on his own in 1977 and said he had never seen a year like 2007. “I’ve never seen this much rain in June and July. We had a lot of water still standing in the fields by July 12.”

Somehow, Johnson had maintained his sanity and a sense of humor. “Most of our farmers have,” Moore said, “even when they realized that weather threatened yield, quality and prices for their crops.”

“It’s all in the Lord’s hands,’ Johnson said.

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