HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Over the past two years, the breadbasket of America has planted less and less wheat.
Acres planted to wheat in 2017 and 2018 neared 100-year lows, with last year’s 7.7 million wheat acres hitting the lowest point in 60 years. Low prices and a wheat surplus moved farmers away from the Kansas staple. This year, those problems combined with a delayed fall harvest and unfavorable weather to push wheat acres to what could be the lowest point in a century.
“Also this fall in addition to low prices, we had very wet weather which delayed planting, and for many farmers, they simply could not plant wheat,” said Lane County wheat farmer Vance Ehmke to The Hutchinson News .
Wet weather delayed planting in a couple of ways. It kept tractors and grain drills out of fields that were too soft, but also kept combines and grain carts out of the fields. Some farmers who planned to plant wheat following grain sorghum or soybeans didn’t have time to plant once harvest was over. Many were harvesting late into November.
Ehmke believes Kansas will see a 100-year low in planted wheat, because of delays from wet weather and the effects of the weather itself.
“My personal bet is that for the 2019 crop we will have the lowest acreage in over 100 years and will not harvest even 7 million acres,” Ehmke said. “We had fewer acres planted plus abandonment will be much higher than the normal 10 percent because many stands, especially in North Central, Central and South Central Kansas, are poor because of wet and cold weather.”
Unplanted acres that were meant for wheat won’t stay that way. Farmers will likely plant the fields to soybeans, grain sorghum or other fall harvested crops. Ehmke also expects to see a rise in triticale acres, a sort of wheat/rye combination. Ehmke said Kansas farmers planted 170,000 acres of triticale last year for hay, silage or grazing. He expects those numbers to increase in 2019.
“I guess everything I have said centers around the old saying that the cure for low prices is low prices,” Ehmke said. “If farmers don’t make any money doing something, they eventually quit doing it, and as is the case with wheat, when they cut back on production, surpluses disappear and prices go back up.”
While recent surpluses and low prices have driven Kansas farmers away from wheat, a report from a former Kansas State University Extension wheat marketing specialist outlined that Western Kansas farmers have been losing money on wheat for some time.
Bill Tierney, who now works as a market analyst for Ag Resource in Chicago, authored the report using data from Agri Benchmark. Participants in the Agri Benchmark network use standard procedures to best replicate the “standard” farm in their country or region.
The data used by Tierney compares wheat growers in Western Kansas to those in Australia, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and more. The study looks at cost of production, yield and prices for the average farm in each country from 2013 to 2016.
The data shows that while Western Kansas enjoyed one of the highest prices for wheat — at around $5.41 per bushel — it also had one of the highest average costs of production over the four-year period at $5.69 per bushel.
Tierney said U.S. farmers may see better export prices due to cheaper freight costs.
“I think that overall, U.S. farmers enjoy relatively low total logistical costs (per mile to a Freight on Board terminal) compared to some other major exporters,” he said. “That means that the US farmer captures more of the FOB price paid for wheat.”
But with lower average yields and higher costs of production, the report notes that from 2013 to 2016 the average Western Kansas wheat producer lost around 12 cents per acre — before low prices and unfavorable weather hit.
Ehmke doesn’t expect Kansas farmers to stop growing wheat. As there is less wheat, he expects prices to rise. Those prices could get very interesting in 2019, he said.
“A wise old man once told me that there is a reason why wheat goes to six dollars,” Ehmke said. “You ain’t got any!”