By John Schlageck, Kansas Farm Bureau
It’s becoming an all too familiar refrain among western Kansas farmers, “We need rain.”
Last year’s drought has continued into 2012. The wheat crop was planted late and many farmers doubled the normal planting rate and drilled 90 to120 pounds per acre versus 50 to 60 pounds per acre in a normal year.
Because there was little to no subsoil moisture in the ground, the wheat crop started slowly once it germinated. Very little growth occurred until beneficial rains fell in November and December.
In January nearly a foot of snow blanketed a large region of wheat fields in southwestern Kansas. Since that time the crop has received scant rainfall and the crop is heading south in a hurry.
“We need rain,” says veteran Gray County farmer/stockman Joe Jury. Annual rainfall averages approximately 20 inches in the sand hills he farms.
People often ask Jury how he can grow crops on that amount of moisture.
“I’d love to have an average rainfall of 18-20 inches in one year,” the Gray County crop producers say. “I can grow a wheat or milo crop on that amount of moisture.”
In 2011 the small farming community of Ingalls, that Jury calls home, recorded less than six inches of rainfall.
“You can’t grow much of a crop with that little moisture,” he says. “Last year we turned our cows on pasture in late April and started feeding them the first of June. We’ve been feeding them ever since and I’m afraid we’ll do the same this year unless we receive rain and soon.”
As of mid-March the wheat crop was beginning to suffer from a lack of moisture. Eighty degree days, winds of 50 and 60 mile-per-hour and 15 percent humidity are sucking dry what little moisture remains in the soil.
In his region of southwestern Kansas some crop farmers have already stripped some of their fields to stop the wind from blowing the soil out of their fields. Feedlots west of Garden City have been cleaned out of manure that has been spread on wheat fields in an attempt to keep them from blowing.
“We’re starting to get beat up already,” Jury says. “Without additional moisture, we can’t afford to lose the remaining soil moisture we have. It could get ugly.”
That’s why Jury and some producers who have heard about the Dirty ‘30s and remember the drought of the early ‘50s are looking at alternative crops this spring instead of the traditional fall crops of corn and soybeans. He’ll probably park his 30-inch planter and hook up to his drills because row crops may not provide enough cover his land will need to keep the soils in place.
Jury plans to plant pearl and German millets, sedan grass and forage sorghums. With the drought of 2011, he didn’t grow any crops. He planted milo but it hardly emerged from the soil before it died so what little residue and stalks that remain on his land are from wheat and milo stubble back in 2010 – hardly enough to keep his valuable soil in place.
“This cover is degrading every day and it’s pretty sparse,” Jury says. “We’ve got to plant these alternative crops and get something to grow and cover our soil up out here.”
The Gray County farmer has no-tilled for many years and believes that without this practice there would already be dust piles in southwestern Kansas with conventional tillage.
Like last year, farmers in southwestern Kansas are staring the probability of another major drought straight in the face. Farmers like Jury are thankful they have crop insurance and the livestock business has buoyed up their faltering crop production. For strictly dry-land farmers it’s been a real bust.
“I’ll say it again, we need rain and we need continuous rains during the next few months to make this crop business happen out here,” Jury says. “My dad had a saying that it always rains at the end of a drought. I’m hoping and praying this doesn’t turn into several years of little moisture.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.