Lack of moisture threatens winter wheat crop in eastern Colorado
Farmers are survivors.
That’s why many will shrug off this year’s bad start to the winter wheat crop, still resting on the little bits of hope for moisture they keep alive.
“Now, it’s probably the worst we’ve seen in 30 years,” said Jim Cooksey of Cooksey Farms southeast of Roggen.
Four months of little to no moisture is taking its toll on the crop, which blankets fields across northern Colorado. That means hopes for even an average harvest next summer are starting to dwindle.
The Cooksey family’s 3,600 acres of winter wheat so far are patchy at best. By now, the winter wheat crop should be up a good 3-4 inches heading into its winter dormancy, Cooksey said. Winter wheat is planted in the fall so it shoots up into a nice ground cover before it hits the winter dormancy. The crop will wake back up in the spring and is harvested in the summer.
While hardy, it also depends on moisture, which should be kick-started in the fall. Subsoil moisture is a good 6 inches below the surface. Without moisture to bridge that gap, the crop struggles.
“We usually have at least one storm in fall, but that hasn’t happened this year,” Cooksey said. “As a farmer, you live a lot on hope. You put a lot of faith in mother nature and God to bring moisture to make a crop.”
Earlier this fall, farmers were riding the high of having just harvested their best crop since 1985, after another good year in 2009. Most farmers probably instinctively knew their luck would not last.
“We just had two good years back-to-back, and that was the first time that happened in the last 10 years,” said Darrell Hanavan, executive director of Colorado Wheat in Fort Collins. “The last 10 years have been rough. Colorado winter wheat has ranged from 36.3 million bushels in 2002 to a high of 105.8 million in 2010. That’s the weather factor.”
Farmers this fall were concerned early on as high winds blew away the moisture in the topsoil.
Conditions for winter wheat likewise have gone downhill since last year at the same time, Hanavan reports. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Service, only 8 percent of Colorado’s crop is rated as excellent, compared with 13 percent at the same time last year. Last year, just 5 percent of the state’s crop was considered poor; that’s up to 13 percent this year; 36 percent is considered fair, compared with 31 percent last year, Hanavan reports.
Hanavan said conditions are very similar now to the way they were in 2007, which in 2008 yielded 57 million bushels.
“When we had that 57-million-bushel crop in 2008, some areas had average yields, other areas had little or nothing,” Hanavan said. “Sometimes, averages aren’t very reflective of how it” really is.
Niles Miller of Platteville leases his 200-acre winter wheat farm, but he watches the crops closely. While he maintains a sense of humor about the ups and downs of farming, he also has 89 years behind him to know what’s around the bend.
“Around here, we’d have been better off to have saved our seed and then sold it, and then waited until spring to plant something else,” Miller said. “It’s so late in the season now.”
By now, he said, the fields should look green with the crop’s early sprouting, showing a good cover to protect the soil, and be strong enough to fight off the weeds.
“Now, you look at them, and you see nothing but dirt,” Miller said. “At this stage, … there’s no chance of it catching up.”
But many still hold out hope for a wet spring.
Mike Freeman of J-9 Crop Insurance in Ault said it’s too early for farmers to start flooding his office with claims.
“If you get quite a bit of snow, that winter wheat is an amazing crop, and it’ll come back and look really good,” Freeman said. “Now, it looks terrible.”
Cooksey, too, is holding out hope for one of Colorado’s famous wet springs.
“We probably need 6 inches between now and June to have an average crop,” Cooksey said.
Throughout the winter, however, all farmers can do is wait.
“They say the winter wheat crop has nine lives,” Hanavan said. “Some of the farmers have said we’ve used two or three so far. It’s not over yet. … If we can get the right conditions, we could still have the potential for an average crop.”