Kansas wheat conditions improve as drought fades

by Laura Lloyd
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Kansas wheat
About 54% of Kansas was drought-free in March, and the remainder was rated as D-0, or abnormally dry.

KANSAS CITY — Rain may, indeed, make grain, but first it must limit drought conditions in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat and a geographic area prone to excessive dryness during the growing season, especially in western parts of the state.

After above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall prevailed in March, crop watchers began to wonder if the current growing season might shape up to be one of the dry years, when Kansas production suffers and affects the overall size of the hard red winter wheat crop. Under favorable weather conditions in 2016, Kansas growers harvested 467,400,000 bus of hard red winter wheat, the most since 2003, and this accounted for 43% of the nation’s 2016 hard red winter wheat crop.

But a turn to wetter conditions in late March, reflected in a five-percentage-point jump in the state’s good-to-excellent crop ratings to 43% in early April, boosted optimism the new crop has a chance of hitting that sweet spot where rainfall is sufficient to “make grain” but is not excessive, which may lead to disease and unwelcome declines in average protein.

With the release of the most recent weekly U.S. Drought Monitor on April 20, indications were Kansas weather was continuing to move in the right direction, consolidating declines in drought conditions of the previous two weeks. About 54% of the state now was drought-free, and the remainder was rated as D-0, or abnormally dry, the least severe level of drought. Most important, none of the Kansas wheat crop was located in areas of drought.

The most recent drought monitor weather commentary for the geographic region including Kansas said “moderate drought (D-1) was lifted along the Colorado and Kansas border as short- and long-term indicators appear to have mostly rebounded from the drought that began in that area last autumn. Also in eastern Kansas, D-0 was trimmed back following the above-normal precipitation at 60 days.”

While weather can change rapidly and unpredictably in the weeks before the harvest is completed, grain professionals have been feeling sanguine lately when it comes to the Kansas wheat crop.

“It’s looking good,” said a grain merchandiser in Kansas City. “We’ll have to see where things go from here.”

There’s no doubt the crop dodged a bullet as winter turned to spring and dry conditions retreated significantly. According to the drought monitor, only 3% of Kansas was free from drought in the week ended March 21 compared with about 43% a year ago and 17% at the beginning of 2017.  Kansas crop progress and condition reports from February and early March told a story of much above-normal temperatures and little precipitation across the state. At the end of February, 34% of Kansas was free from drought, which eroded to 32% by mid-March before plummeting to the low of 3% at the start of spring.

For the month of February, the Kansas U.S.D.A. crop progress and condition report said temperatures averaged 6 to 12 degrees above normal as most of the state remained dry, while portions of central and eastern Kansas received beneficial rainfall.  The crop, still in dormancy for the most part, was rated 43% good to excellent, 36% fair and 21% poor to very poor. Thirty-eight per cent of the crop was growing in areas afflicted by drought.

Into mid-March, though, conditions turned even dryer, with only small amounts of precipitation limited to eastern and northern counties. Wildfires caused damage, and temperature fluctuations raised concerns about the health of the wheat crop, the Kansas U.S.D.A. field office said. Thirty-nine per cent of the crop was growing in drought conditions. By March 21, a total of 44% of the winter wheat crop in Kansas was growing in drought areas, the peak so far for the current growing season.

But starting with the week ended March 28, percentages of Kansas land area that were free of all drought jumped, first to 10% as of March 28 and hitting a high of 54% drought-free in the week ended April 4 before sinking back to 49% by April 11 and expanding again above 50% by April 18. Severity of the remaining drought lessened, with none rated more than merely abnormally dry.

The Kansas crop progress and condition report for the week ended March 26 was succinct: “Large portions of Kansas received measurable rainfall, however much of the state remained drier than normal.” That week, 38% of the crop was rated good to excellent (compared with 38% the previous week), 37% was rated fair (38%), and 25% was rated poor to very poor (24%).

By early April, crop conditions were improving because of more rainfall. The Kansas U.S.D.A. field office said, for the week ended April 2, “Much needed rain fell across the entire state. Every county averaged at least one inch of precipitation, with most counties averaging two to three inches.”

The rain did its job, dramatically increasing the percentage of the state free of drought. Only 9% of the wheat crop was growing in drought areas as of April 4. Crop condition ratings continued to improve, with 48% of the Kansas crop rated good to excellent in the week ended April 9 and 51% rated good to excellent in the week ended April 16.

Weather predictions for the last week of April and first week of May point to a beneficial pattern of both rain and sunshine in hard winter wheat growing areas, with the possibility of even too much wetness in a few areas of Kansas.

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