’15 rain takes toll on wheat crop

State estimated to yield 14.3 million bushels, down 42%

Winter wheat is harvested near Moro in Lee County on June 4 in this photo provided by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Winter wheat is harvested near Moro in Lee County on June 4 in this photo provided by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Worries about low-commodity prices last fall combined with a wet start to 2015 took a toll on Arkansas’ wheat crop just a year after farmers set a record for average per-acre yields.

Jason Kelley, a grain agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the state’s recently completed 2015 wheat harvest saw mixed results. While a handful of farmers saw 80-plus bushel-per-acre yields, many others harvested a third less than they’d anticipated.

“The wet weather was bad enough,” “Kelley said. “Then harvest drags out, making it just that much worse when rain falls on it once it’s mature.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that Arkansas’ winter wheat yields would be down nearly 16 percent this year, from averaging 63 bushels per acre to 53 bushels per acre. During the planting period last fall, producers also cut their acreage by 25 percent compared with the prior year.

Last year’s 63-bushelper-acre average was a new statewide yield record for wheat.

This year, Arkansas producers wrapped up their wheat harvest by July 19, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The service estimates about 14.3 million bushels of wheat will be produced in Arkansas, down about 42 percent from the 24.9 million bushels harvested in 2014.

While county-by-county acreage estimates for 2015 aren’t yet available, Arkansas’ top wheat producing counties in 2014 included Mississippi County at 56,100 acres; Crittenden County at 40,800 acres; and Phillips County at 36,100 acres.

In Lee County, producers cut back on their wheat acreage this year, said Stan Baker, chairman of the Cooperative Extension Service Office there.

Last year, Lee County farmers planted 29,500 acres in wheat.

“Our acreage was down significantly, I’m certain, because of the the price reduction,” said Baker, referring to low commodity prices that are affecting most row crops. While yields were down overall, he said some growers had fields that “cut really good. Others didn’t.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt but what yields suffered somewhat from too much rain,” Baker said. “But I don’t feel like it was just terrible.”

Arkansas farmers, who mostly plant soft red winter wheat, are expected to have harvested about 270,000 acres this year, compared to 395,000 acres a year ago.

Ethan Branscum of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, administrator of the Arkansas Wheat Promotion Board, said Tuesday he’s worried low prices combined with this year’s harvest results will lead farmers to cut their wheat acreage even further when it comes time to plant this fall.

Arkansas farmers typically plant winter wheat in October and November and begin harvesting it the next June.

“Every producer that I’ve talked to has been very depressed about their wheat crop this year,” Branscum said. At a time when planted acreage was already down significantly, harvested acres were even fewer, he added, making it “a pretty rough year for wheat.”

“We harvested about 75 [percent] or 77 percent of the acres we planted,” Branscum said. “That’s the lowest percent harvested that we’ve had in the last five years.”

Kelley said yields were already off before rains interfered with harvests. He said wet conditions in February interfered with fertilizer applications. Wheat, like any crop, “just can’t stand having too much water on it at the wrong time,” he said noting that farmers in nearby states such as Mississippi and Louisiana had similar problems.

Despite the wet weather, Arkansas growers experience limited problems with mold compared to farmers in other states, Kelley said.

Sprout damage in other states is reducing the quality of soft-red winter wheat, according to a Friday report issued by U.S. Wheat Associates, an industry trade group, Bloomberg News reported. Rains delayed harvests and increased sprout and mold damage in states such as Ohio and Missouri, resulting in lower prices being paid for crops at grain elevators.

The USDA estimates that US farmers will produce 393.4 million bushels of soft red wheat this year, compared with 455.3 million bushels in 2014. However, it’s estimating that the nation’s overall winter wheat production will climb 6 percent, to 1.46 billion bushels. About 40.6 million acres were planted in winter wheat for harvest this year, including 29.6 million acres of hard red winter wheat; 7.61 million acres of soft red; and 3.44 million acres of white winter wheat.

While poor quality has the potential to push prices down, a bad production year can have the opposite effect, Branscum said. However, a slow export market for existing wheat stockpiles are depressing prices, he added.

“My feeling is that it’s going to be pretty tough to convince farmers to put wheat in the ground this fall,” he said.