This is day 15 of the Kansas Wheat Harvest Reports, brought to you by the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Cooperative Council.
Everyone in the wheat supply chain is feeling the drag of a long and difficult harvest season. Harvest is still only 87 percent complete, well behind 100 percent last year and the five-year average of 98 percent, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) crop progress report for the week ending July 23, 2023.
Producers generally like to wrap up harvest by the Fourth of July across the draw area for Garden City Co-op, but general manager Jeff Boyd noted there are a number of farmers still cutting and hauling in grain. A big storm that dropped three to five inches of rain and hail Thursday, July 20, further delayed those final fields, but with triple-digit temperatures this week, most producers should be able to finish up.
“That’s been the story of this harvest and why we still have folks out there with acres to cut,” Boyd said. “I don’t remember one being this late.”
At the beginning of wheat harvest in Finney County and the surrounding area, test weights were good at 60 to 61 pounds per bushel but are now averaging just under 59 pounds per bushel due to continued rain. Moisture has stayed steady at 12 percent. Proteins are averaging in the 12 percent range.
Yields are highly variable with a lot of abandoned acres with some fields not even germinating until January and February. Boyd reported they expected a big difference between planted and harvested acres, but the cooperative will take in about half the bushels of a 10-year average crop, which is better than anyone expected in the spring.
Wheat producers planted into dust last fall and are now harvesting in the mud, having received a year’s worth of rain since April – some areas up to 15 inches. Boyd noted there is still a moisture deficiency to make up, despite the continued summer showers, which currently good-looking fall crops will need to get to harvest.
Despite the seemingly constant rain delays and ever-increasing weed pressure, wheat farmers like Gary Millershaski in Lakin are stubborn and determined to do whatever it takes to finish cutting the fields left standing. On Monday, July 24, Millershaski was cutting wheat that should have been cut a month ago, but was set back by finally getting rain, mud, then more rain, then weeds, then having to spray fields and wait for residual periods to expire, then more rain. His friends in Oregon and Montana are already cutting their winter wheat, which is always on a different harvest schedule than his Kansas farm.
“I’m not mad, I’m frustrated,” he said. “It has been a mess.”
The entire growing season for Millershaski has been a battle. Before May 15, his acres only had received six to eight inches of moisture for the last year and a half. He planted wheat at the end of September and only had 30 to 40 percent emergence due to the drought. Where the wheat did come up after a small snow in January or rain in May, a lot did not produce kernels. After crop insurance agents adjusted those poor acres anywhere from zero to 2.5 bushels per acre, he destroyed all but 15 percent of his planted acres.
There in the southern half of Kearny County, he estimated up to 90 percent of wheat acres were abandoned. In comparison, the northern half of the county saw unbelievable yields if producers were fortunate enough to get the wheat to come up. Those yields were boosted by a complete turn in the weather after May 15. Since that time, Millershaski reported receiving 16 to 17 inches of rain.
That rain helped fill heads, even if it brought with it troublesome weeds. Millershaski reported test weights started as high as 61.7 pounds per bushel and protein should be higher than average due to the prior drought conditions. If he averages 25 bushels an acre on the fields he has left, he said he will be tickled to death.
As the rain has continued falling, test weights have dropped down to 56 or 57 pounds per bushel, and elevators are now sending samples of nearly every load to the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) to check for potential damage. As a result, it can take up to three days for the producer to know their dockage levels, which Millershaski said is frustrating, but a necessary part of what the cooperatives need to do to sustain local operations.
“We’re back to cutting again,” Millershaski said. “With any luck, I’ll wrap it up tomorrow.”
Millershaski turned 60 years old this year. Of all his harvests, he has never cut this late and the poor year ranks at the very bottom. Despite that struggle, he and his two sons are already on the list for the varieties they selected to plant this fall – refusing to let this year be their last.
“We’re planning for next year,” he said. “If we were throwing in the towel, we wouldn’t be cutting this crap right now.”
“Nobody likes to quit a failure. I’ll be danged if I’m going to quit on a bad year. I may retire after the year of the home-run-over-the-fence yields, but I don’t see how I could quit.”
Crop insurance helps provide a bridge from this bad year to a hopefully better harvest next year, but Millershaski was quick to point out that not many could average out their yearly wages for the past 15 years, take 60 to 70 percent of that and make that work for their budgets.
“If it weren’t for crop insurance, there would be a lot of people that would not be here next year,” Millershaski said.
His son Kyler is off the combine and back in Washington, DC, this week, visiting with Congressional leaders about the importance of programs like crop insurance to helping farmers like themselves persist through bad years like this one. Millershaski said he’s fortunate to have two sons that didn’t want to do anything but farm and are home working as the next generation in the operation.
“This is our passion,” he said, noting he wished he could explain the good smell of a shovel full of good dirt in the spring or the soothing feel of ripe wheat to the touch. “This is what we do.”
The 2023 Harvest Report is brought to you by the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Cooperative Council. To follow along with harvest updates on Twitter, use #wheatharvest23. Tag us at @kansaswheat on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to share your harvest story and photos.