Wheat harvest looking healthy despite vexing weather

Wet weather had a curious effect on wheat harvests in northeastern Colorado, but don’t tell the state climatologist it has been an overly wet or cool summer.

“You are forgetting about the ’70s, ’80s and maybe the ’90s,” said Nolan Doesken, noting this century perhaps has us all believing that hot and dry are standard for Colorado summers. “That three days of socked-in, upslope during July was an anomaly, but now that we are in a typically wet season, we aren’t seeing a lot of rain.”

Still it proved to be a hit-and-miss year for Colorado wheat farmers. An early freeze last fall after rain-delayed planting hurt some, as did freezes late in the spring.

Then came the substantial rains and cool weather during May that led to an outbreak of stripe rust fungus in June that literally exploded across the state.

“Fellows who didn’t get froze too badly, and managed for the rust stripe, some of them are cutting 70, 80 and 90 (bushels per acre),” said Joe Westoff, feed and trait specialist with Colorado Wheat. Across the state, he said the wheat crop would be “I’m guessing somewhere around 85 million (bushels),” which is just above normal.

Stripe rust typically is not a big problem in Colorado, but experts said the fungal disease caught farmers unprepared and caused them to bring in a corps of crop dusters to help treat the problem.

“People who didn’t spray are cutting 25 and 30 bushels per acre,” Westoff said. “But I’m guessing the better stuff will overcome the worse.”

CSU Extension agent Jerry Johnson, who runs the crop-variety testing program, said the anomalous year will make it difficult to ascertain performance of various wheat varieties.

“There was very spectacularly high yields, and there were some spectacularly low yields,” Johnson said. “For our experimental varieties — we don’t pay attention until results have been repeated over several years.”

However, Johnson said the long green-out did appear to make a difference with how farmers did with established varieties carried under the PlainsGold brand. (PlainsGold is owned by the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation and markets wheat varieties developed and certified by CSU.)

“Antero, across locations, was always there up in the top 5″ of what are usually several dozen varieties tested, he said. “Byrd is not a rain (variety), and Byrd got hurt real bad by this year’s rust stripe.”

Johnson said picking a variety solely on the basis on one year’s production is a mistake, especially when that year was as cool and wet as 2015.

“You’d think that next year might tend to be a little drought-y,” he said. “You can manage for rust stripe, but you can’t protect yourself against drought.”

Westoff said that prices have dropped since last year’s $6 a bushel price, but were holding fairly firmly at about $5.20. The $5 mark is often seen as being close to the break-even point for many years and many farmers, depending on their expenses.

“Depending on who you talk to, that’s going to be in the $5 range,” he said. “But if you are in the business of trying to get started farming — paying for land and for new equipment — that’s going to be pretty close.”

Adding to some farmers’ bottom line this year, may be a bumper crop of dryland corn. While not in his job description, Westoff said he has noticed a good deal of dryland corn out there that’s just beginning to tassel.

“People I’m talking to are saying this wet weather that delaying (wheat) harvest is exactly what a dryland crop needs,” he said. “One or two more good rains and they may have it.”

Doesken said that’s what he believes may be left. While the moisture from spring/early summer rains helped keep rains coming by supplying atmospheric moisture to kick off subsequent storms, that scenario may now be played out.

“The fact that we’ve been wet has continued to keep those little showers springing up,” he said. “But the unirrigated vegetation is starting to run out of steam right now, with ET (evapotranspiration, the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration) rates starting to diminish.”

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