Weather puts hurt on upper Southeast wheat crop

Wheat production in North Carolina and Virginia may be at the lowest levels in the past 100 years, thanks more so from the weather than from stagnated wheat prices.

In the Carolinas and Virginia cotton and soybean harvest was late — some still going into 2010. Many growers had to wait for record low temperatures to freeze their fields so they could harvest the last of their 2009 cotton and soybeans — in January 2010.

Toward the end of the harvest season last fall one tropical system after another dropped record amounts of rain on the area. Lucky growers waited days to get in their field, unlucky growers waited months. Still other growers were forced to abandon crops.

Jack Alphin, is a North Carolina wheat grower and incoming president of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association. “I’ve been able to plant so little wheat, I may have to give up my seat on the Board,” he quipped during the Association’s annual meeting.

Alphin, who also farms grain crops near Mount Olive, N.C., says he has been farming most of his life, and he’s never seen this combination of factors hit in one wheat cropping season.

“It’s not unusual to get crop harvest delays on beans, corn and other crops — for any number of reasons, not just weather. Fall planting time rains are also not uncommon. Sub-freezing winter temperatures are common as is some snow. But to get all these, and in record numbers in some cases, is unlike nothing I’ve ever seen,” Alphin says.

USDA projections are pegged at 600,000 acres, but that was farmer’s intentions to plant before all these weather related problems. These projections, Alphin contends, were based on five-year averages and aren’t indicative of what wheat acreage will really be in North Carolina in 2010.

“Now, projections are that 250,000 acres of wheat may have been planted in the fall of 2009. I think that is too high, but even if we did plant that many acres, continued wet, cold, freezing weather and snow have significantly reduced that number,” Alphin contends.

How low wheat acreage could go in North Carolina and Virginia range from a 30 percent to 70 percent drop from the 2008-2009 crop. No matter what the final number is, 2010 looks like a disaster for wheat production in North Carolina, Alphin says.

Growers with wheat still in the ground were some difficult choices in late January and into February. They will have to assess the stands they have left and decide whether to continue with fertilization programs and pest management, or to pull the crop and salvage what they can, he explains.

With input costs so high, it will be tough for a farmer to put the resources into a wheat crop with so many things working against good yield and quality.

“We were still combining soybeans in mid-January — that’s just unheard of in our part of the country. And, I understand from reports from other areas, farmers have been equally challenged. With our soybeans, we were in the position of hoping for a freeze, so we could get into the field,” Alphin says.

The wet weather was so widespread that farmers have just made a mess of their fields. There is likely to be more spring tillage done this year than in the past several years combined — just to clean up the mess done to fields by farmers trying to get cotton and soybeans harvested and trying to get fall grain crops planted.

In northwest North Carolina, long-time grain grower Henry Walker says many farmers in his area bought wheat seed, but very few actually planted any. “We sent a fairly large quantity of treated seed back. Our supplier was not too disappointed to get them back, because he is afraid the supply and quality of seed next year will not be good,” Walker says.

Walker, who has been a no-till farmer for many years, says growers who have to come back into their fields with tillage equipment as a result of harvesting during wet weather run the risk of undoing long years of soil quality and nutrient building from no-till planting.

In eastern North Carolina, Alphin contends tobacco will be the money crop for him. I think with all the quality problems corn growers are facing in the Midwest with this year’s crop that some livestock integrators will be looking for North Carolina corn to blend with the Midwest crop. So, corn looks like a good option for us this year, too,” he adds.

For wheat farmers, it’s going to be very critical that they make a careful assessment of what they have in the ground. Putting money into a crop with questionable yield and quality potential is just not a good management strategy ever, but certainly not in today’s economic conditions.

The dramatic loss in wheat acreage in 2010 will likely have a ripple effect on soybeans. With a high percentage of North Carolina beans planted in a double-crop system with wheat, many growers who depend on the wheat income for cash flow will have to make some other choices.

Veteran North Carolina Soybean Specialist Jim Dunphy says the loss of wheat acreage won’t have much affect on total soybean acreage. No doubt there will be a lot more full-season beans, but wheat or no wheat, farmers planning to plant soybeans are going to do so, though hopefully they will plant them earlier by not having to wait to combine wheat, he adds.

What effect this year’s crop will have on seed supply for the 2010-2011 crop is another issue. While long-term outlooks don’t call for dramatic increases in wheat prices — due to good wheat yields in other parts of the world, pricing could put farmers in a different situation over the next 6 to 8 months.

If growers want to plant wheat, both availability and quality of seed may be important factors, especially if the 2010 crop is as adversely affected as some experts contend.

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TAGS: Management
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