Butler County Times Gazette
  • End of dry conditions on horizon for Kansas areas

  • Travel a dirt road just a few miles in any direction from Dan Schweizer's farmstead and the wheat crop is ailing.
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  • Travel a dirt road just a few miles in any direction from Dan Schweizer's farmstead and the wheat crop is ailing.
    Parched from lack of moisture, some fields are turning yellow, the Reno County farmer said. Head farther south toward the Oklahoma border and there are spots where the wheat isn't growing at all.
    Yet with harvest approaching in just eight weeks, Schweizer is crossing is fingers. Barring a hailstorm or something else, he is situated in a Garden of Eden.
    "I'm just in the right spot," he said. "The Lord has really blessed us. We've gotten a couple (showers) here and couple there and that has really bailed us out."
    His fields are part of a small but growing bright spot regarding this year's Kansas wheat crop - among the 31 percent rated good to excellent.
    Fostered by snow and rainfall in March and early April, that percentage is slowly increasing.
    However, Schweizer admits he isn't out of the woods yet, as the third year of drought still lingers across Kansas. While adequate topsoil moisture is helping his wheat survive, Schweizer doesn't have to dig down far before he hits dry earth.
    "We're living hand to mouth right now," he said. "I would probably need one more good shower between now and the first of June to make a really good crop."
    Nevertheless, after three years of drought, there is hope on the horizon.
    According to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, the drought will largely improve in the eastern third of Kansas. Drought conditions also are expected to continue but improve across the remainder of the state, expect for the far southwestern corner where the dry spell will persist through at least June.
    "We're getting a lot more precipitation on a more consistent basis," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. "Conditions are easing, they are improving albeit slowly."
    That's good news for producers that stretch across America's middle section, where drought has persisted since the summer of 2010.
    The drought's impact on the Kansas economy is staggering. The Kansas Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of the 2012 drought at more than $3 billion in crop losses - the loss of production and the price farmers would have received. The 2011 drought cost Kansas production agriculture roughly $1.8 billion, the department estimated last year, along with about $366 million in herd liquidation that year as cattle flooded livestock auction houses by midsummer.
    Farmers didn't experience the full brunt of the loss, however, since the government paid out more than $1.3 billion in crop insurance indemnity payments for failed commodities last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency.
    Page 2 of 3 - The agency already has covered more than $250,000 for crop losses this year, largely for wheat.
    Yet, while some areas are improving across Kansas and the Midwest, industry officials expect crop insurance payments to augment in coming weeks where the crop didn't come up or is too damaged to be saved by rain.
    Earlier this month, Futures International LLC projected that almost 24 percent of the planted hard red winter wheat acreage will be abandoned this year, the most since the 2002 drought.
    Last year, farmers abandoned about 16 percent of the crop, the agency reported.
    In the Barber County town of Kiowa, OK Co-op Grain General Manager Steve Inslee said insurance adjusters would be out next week walking the fields to assess the condition.
    "I know there are acres that will be abandoned," he said, but added he didn't know how much.
    Kansas remains in a moderate to exceptional drought, with 64 percent of the state rated as extreme to exceptional, the highest ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions in Barber County are severe to extreme and Inslee said wheat conditions here are some of the worst in the south-central Kansas region.
    The area didn't receive the fall rains to get the wheat up, with a good percentage of the crop never sprouting until late winter. Spring moisture has helped some of the wheat to emerge, but the rain didn't do enough "to do any good."
    "The sun is out and it's already looking dry again," he said after a recent shower. "A lot of the wheat is so immature."
    More rain is needed to end the drought, Fuchs stressed. About 80 percent of Kansas farmland is short on subsoil moisture - the reserve that is needed to carry crops through the hot summer months.
    Also, about 80 percent of the state's pastures and rangeland also are in poor to very poor condition, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
    Eighty-one-year-old Pratt County farmer Carter Barker compared the current conditions to the 1950s.
    Some farmers are planting more cotton to conserve on water. Others are incorporating more no-till into their operation. Ranchers have had to sell off cattle because of little grass and the dwindling water supply.
    Barker said his wheat crop last year "was somewhere between poor and worse and the milo crop was worse than that."
    This year there is more promise as the June harvest nears. About 80 percent of his family's crop has a decent stand.
    "It's only surviving on what is on top," he said of the topsoil moisture.
    But harvest is fast approaching across south-central Kansas - the heart of Kansas wheat country. A few more showers, at least, are needed to get the combines rolling.
    Page 3 of 3 - Elevator manager Inslee, whose community is typically the first to begin the Kansas harvest, said he and others in the industry can only stay optimistic that weather patterns are changing.
    "We're in year three of the drought here," he said. "We are hoping there won't be a fourth year."
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