Drought takes toll on wheat in western Kansas, but forecast for heavy rains may save crop

Rains that swept through parts of arid Kansas during the weekend missed vast stretches of parched winter wheat crops in the western part of the state.

But weather forecasts that predict heavy rains in western Kansas and eastern Colorado later this week — followed by another generous round of rain expected next week — have sparked a measure of optimism for drought-weary growers. Western Kansas could receive as much as 3 inches total from those two upcoming storm systems.

"When you combine those two together it will carry the wheat, absolutely," Don Keeney, agricultural meteorologist for MDA Weather Services, said Monday. "It won't end the drought by any means, but it will certainly be very good for the wheat."

While most of the drought-stressed wheat will recover somewhat, some of the damage is irreversible, Keeney said.

MDA Weather Services, a Maryland-based commodity risk firm, is forecasting the 2015 winter wheat crop will come in at 292 million bushels in Kansas and 1.5 billion bushels in the United States. If that prediction holds, Kansas would be on track for "a little better" wheat harvest than last year's drought-plagued crop — but not by much, Keeney said.

A year ago, Kansas farmers hauled in 246.4 million bushels, far short of the 328 million bushels the state has averaged in the past decade.

Already the tell-tale blue hue of the winter wheat across the parched field signals a crop in distress across much of western Kansas. A closer look reveals rolled up leaves on stunted plants, another sign the plants are struggling.

"We just need rain so bad it is not even funny," said Vance Ehmke, who grows mostly wheat on some 4,700 acres near Healy in west-central Kansas.

On Monday, the National Agricultural Statistic Service rated 28 percent of the wheat in Kansas in poor to very poor condition. About 44 percent was reported as fair, followed by 26 percent in good and 2 percent in excellent condition.

In northwest Kansas, farmers are dealing not only with drought, but also with freeze damage. Unseasonably warm weather early in the growing season did not give the wheat crop a chance to gradually harden off for winter before an arctic blast hit that area in mid-November.

"Almost every field experienced some level of winter injury. I wouldn't call it winterkill," said Lucas Haag, northwest area agronomist for Kansas State University.

The extent of the freeze damage is sporadic, but the top end potential yields of wheat in northwest Kansas has been knocked out, he said.

"We've got fields that are gone — dead, dead gone — and next to it (a field) might look decent," Haag said. "It is very patchy."