Kansas farmers have returned to fields after the state’s wettest May on record. Rain and floods halted spring planting, washed out planted crops and created mudholes. As the waters recede, new problems are showing up.
Namely damage to roads used to access farms, and that wheat is struggling to mature in the fields.
"There is an old saying that wheat does not like wet feet," said Steven McCloud, a farmer north of Newton who is on the county Farm Bureau board of directors. "At this particular stage it is more of a dry weather crop. With as much moisture as we have had, I can't help but think you will see incidences (of disease) if it is not already there."
He said is one of the lucky ones — all of his crop is planted and he is "just kind of waiting for wheat harvest right now." Instead of fretting over corn planting and wheat, he is working with his cattle herd.
"I am glad that the pens are starting to dry out. That is another concern. If you have cattle in lots, those pens got muddy and sloppy," McCloud said. "They are starting to dry out."
There is wet weather in the forecast, which McCloud said is "never a good thing" close to wheat harvest.
Central Kansas wheat fields are spotted with circles of off-white wheat among fields that are just starting to color. The discolored wheat in low spots suffered from premature death after being in standing water. Kansas State University Wheat and Forages Specialist Romulo Lollato said that’s a big concern for yield.
“There’s a large section of South Central and Central Kansas where we’re seeing fields turning white in places,” Lollato said. “That premature death is really going to lower yields and lower test weights. It’s our biggest concern right now.”
Precipitation brought disease pressure with it as well. It’s been a big year for both stripe and leaf rust in Kansas, and stripe rust has become severe in Central Kansas, according to KSU Wheat Disease Specialist Erick DeWolf.
However, the biggest disease concern currently is Fusarium head blight — or head scab — which could have a significant impact on wheat production.
Like leaf and stripe rust, head scab is caused by a fungus. High humidity and frequent rainfall help it to spread spores.
Head scab is a big concern for two reasons. One, it directly attacks the head of the wheat, which is bad during grain fill.
“It causes the head to either not fill and produce a grain, or if it does fill, it will be shriveled with low test weight,” Lollato said.
The second reason is that head scab produces a mycotoxin in the grain that can be dangerous to both livestock and humans, rendering the wheat useless. According to Lollato, if a load of wheat contains a high enough percentage of mycotoxin, then it will be undeliverable.
The only way to combat the mycotoxin at this point is to adjust harvesting equipment, Lollato said.
“Producers can adjust their combine to try to expel some of those very, very small grains and blow them behind the combine,” he said. “That’s going to decrease yield, but it’s better than not being able to deliver a whole load.”
That method has other problems, such as creating volunteer wheat to manage next year to stop more disease in the future.
Rain has also slowed down wheat production.
Winter wheat coloring was 49% for the week ending June 9, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Kansas Crop Progress and Condition Report. That’s well behind last year’s 75% and the five-year average of 74. Mature wheat was only at 2%, behind 25 last year.
Hot, dry temperatures last year accelerated the wheat crop into maturity, but the cool, wet temperatures this year have had the opposite effect.
“Last year, May was one of the hottest Mays on average, which really sped up the process,” Lollato said. “This May it was cooler and we had much more moisture.”
Some drier weather in the past couple of weeks has been helpful.
"As the water go down, as flooding recedes, you are left with the residue and debris in the fields. That involves cleanup and hard work to get it straightened up," McCloud said. "The dry weather we have had over the last week to 10 days has allowed a lot of the planting to get done. A lot of the corn that drowned out has been planted."
Excess precipitation has plagued this crop of wheat before. Heavy rainfall in fall of 2018 delayed wheat planting heavily in parts of the state. Reno and Rice County farmer Jenny Burgess said late planting caused some thin areas of wheat.
“Where the wheat is thin pigweed and marestail are starting to emerge,” she said.
Last year, Burgess began harvesting on June 15, but this year she said it will be much later.
“We have a mixture of everything,” she said. “Freeze damage, hail damage, head scab, and of course just completely dying due to saturated soils.”