Rains could tarnish golden wheat harvest

By Carolyn Cole
Published on May 24, 2008

Mustang-area farmer Ray Bornemann is waiting for his green wheat stalks to turn golden with careful optimism as prices soared above $7 per bushel this week.

“Really there haven’t been a lot of problems with it, and I think a majority of the crop is looking pretty good,” he said.

Then again, Bornemann said he felt the same way leading into the 2007 harvest, which was disastrous for most Canadian County farmers. Like many local farmers, Bornemann’s family was able to harvest about 60 percent of their 1,300 acres of wheat before rains shut them out of their fields and destroyed what remained of the crop.

The lifelong farmer said a lot can go wrong even with less than two weeks to go until his harvest, and with rising seed, fertilizer and fuel costs compounding woes from last year’s failed season, much is riding on this year’s crop.

Canadian County’s farmers seem to have dodged late frosts, disease and insects that plagued the 2007 harvest even before the early summer downpours washed out fields, County Extension educator Brad Tipton said. Hail and thunderstorms are farmers’ biggest worries now as they wait for their crops to mature.

“By and large we are setting up in real good shape, but we will be running combines later than usual in this county,” he said, due to a cooler than usual spring.

Heavy rains could dash all hopes, he said. When wheat heads absorb water and later dry out, the grains never shrink to their original size, affecting their weight, quality and value. A bushel of wheat is expected to weigh 60 pounds, but if a bushel weighs less, farmers are paid less for the harvest.

Rains would also increase the humidity in the fields, and grains need to have a moisture level of less than 12 percent to be stored at an elevator without molding. Farmers would have to wait for the crops to dry out before harvesting.

Enough rains will turn fields to mud. Many farmers spent much of last season trying to get their combines unstuck from muddy fields.

“They will cut into the days and nights because this wheat is to valuable to lose,” Tipton said.

Because of increased international demand for grains and last year’s rough season, Tipton said wheat prices have reached record highs. This week the price for top quality wheat topped $7.40 per bushel, said Betty Weach at the Banner Co-Op, compared to about $5 last year, which was a record high, then. She said she expects that price to fluctuate as harvest approaches.

“Until you get it across the scale and dumped in the elevator, there are no guarantees,” Weach said.

While prices reach record highs, Tipton said farmers are facing record costs everywhere they look. Diesel and gasoline prices to power tractors, combines and trucks to haul the grain have skyrocketed. The cost of fertilizer has also climbed because it is directly tied to fuel prices, Tipton said.

Combined with higher seed costs due to the puny harvest last summer, he said many Canadian County farmers have spent as much as $100 to $125 per acre to raise wheat.
“They have to get a crop out, or a lot of guys will go broke,” Tipton said.

Once harvest starts, Bornemann said his farm burns through 80 gallons of fuel in a day, calling it a conservative estimate. At between $3.75 and $4.50 per gallon for 10 to 14 days, he said affording fuel is becoming a major concern for farmers.

Besides harvesting some of the fields themselves, the Bornemann family relies on hired custom cutters, teams of workers who travel across the plains with combines and help with the harvest. The harvesters move from state to state as crops ripen.

“There has been some talk that some of them aren’t going to come because of the higher fuel prices,” he said.

The moment conditions are right, Tipton said he expects farmers will want to harvest the grain as quickly as possible. Last year’s poor harvest wiped out a handful of farmers, and Tipton said many more have loans they need to pay to keep their family farm businesses afloat.

“Our urban neighbors need to be courteous on the roads to let our farmers get their grain to town,” he said.


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