Due to a variety of factors, Colorado wheat growers might have planted their largest crop this fall since 1997.
That’s according to estimates this week from Darrell Hanavan, the president of the Colorado Wheat Growers Association for 32 years, who said he’s expecting the state to collectively plant about 3 million acres this year — although a U.S. Department of Agriculture report with officials numbers will be released in January, he added.
Hanavan also said this week he believes Colorado’s large crop remains in great condition, despite the recent streak of days with temperatures below zero.
A year ago, cold spells not nearly as severe caused widespread winterkill — but last year’s crop didn’t go into its winter dormancy in nearly as good of shape as this year’s.
Some areas of Colorado received as much as five times, or more, that its normal rainfall in September, the month when winter wheat is planted.
That abundance of moisture, Hanavan and farmers said, has the state’s wheat crop off to its best start in a long time.
The strong start for the wheat crop has been welcomed by Colorado’s farmers.
In recent years, northeast Colorado wheat farmers watched their seeds struggle to emerge in parched soil in the fall, then later depend on just-in-the-nick-of-time moisture to keep the crop alive until the summer, culminating in what was below-average production in many fields.
It’s been much worse in southeast Colorado, where many areas have been in some degree of drought for about three years.
Last year, farmers in that part of the state abandoned about 700,000 acres of wheat, due to the condition of the crop, Hanavan said.
Those 700,000 acres account for more than 30 percent of the state’s total winter wheat acres. During Colorado’s historic drought year of 2002 — a 300-year drought, by some estimations — the state’s abandonment rate of winter wheat acres was 29.8 percent, Hanavan said.
Natural moisture is critical for wheat, which, because of its tolerance for drought, is often planted on dryland acres, instead of being irrigated, like corn, onions or sugar beets.
Colorado State University Extension crop specialist Bruce Bosley stressed that moisture at planting time is especially important for wheat, referring to a study that showed in six out of seven years, wheat yields were determined more so by the soil moisture at planting time than by the moisture it received later in the growing season.
That being the case, the abundance of moisture this fall is a godsend for Colorado’s winter wheat growers, who planted about 2.35 million acres of winter wheat in 2011, and whose production from that crop in 2012 was valued at about $593.9 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistic Services office in Colorado.
The last time most Colorado farmers remember seeing a winter wheat crop get off to a good start was in 2009. That wheat crop went on to produce yields of 45.5 bushels per acre on average, which still stands as the state record.
The much improved planting conditions this past fall is only one reason so many more acres of winter wheat are being planted.
In northeast Colorado, where many cities have cut back on how much water they lease to area farmers, many acres typically devoted to crops like corn, sugar beets and onions have had winter wheat planted on them instead, because winter wheat is less water-dependant crop.
A number of farmers in that part of the state said that while winter wheat historically accounts for about 10 percent of their acres, they’re planting the crop on 25 to 30 percent of their acres now.
Additionally, wheat prices have been much stronger in recent months than other crops — particularly corn and sugar beets, which have seen sharp decreases — and many farmers are putting more stock in wheat.
“For a variety of reasons, we’re seeing more wheat acres planted,” Hanavan said. “And right now, that crop is in good shape.” ❖