WICHITA, Kansas — Plagued by widespread drought since planting their winter wheat crop last fall, farmers in Kansas are now on the cusp of harvesting the smallest wheat crop since 1989 — that is, whenever it stops raining long enough for them to get into their fields to cut it.
The rains came far too late to help the majority of the wheat crop in Kansas, the nation's biggest producer of the grain. The state's drought-stricken crop — as well as the arid conditions that decimated crops in Texas and Oklahoma — are behind the latest government forecast released Wednesday that revises downward the official estimate of the size of the nation's wheat crop.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted that U.S. farmers will bring in 1.38 billion bushels of winter wheat. Their forecast is down 2 percent from a month ago and 10 percent from last year.
An even bigger drop was estimated for the nation's hard red winter wheat crop, the type grown primarily to make bread. The government pegged that estimate at 720 million bushels, down 3 percent from a month ago.
Kansas, which grows mostly hard red wheat, is now forecast to harvest 243.6 million bushels, down 24 percent from last year. Just a month ago, the government had predicted the state would bring in 260.4 million bushels. But that was before triple-digit temperatures hit amid little rain during those crucial weeks when the crop was filling out kernels.
While the rains these past few days may still help fill the heads on immature wheat crops in northwest and west central Kansas, the moisture that came at harvest time elsewhere in the state not only delays harvest of mature wheat crops but may actually hurt wheat quality.
Every time it rains, it knocks down the test weights of a ripe crop, said Aaron Harries, marketing director for the industry trade group Kansas Wheat. The drought-plagued wheat is also so short that the rain only serves to spur weed growth, meaning many farmers will be combining both wheat and weeds at harvest.
The bleaker government production forecast came as no surprise to the industry, which had anticipated it given the adverse weather conditions.
"Once we get out there and get underway with harvest, we will have a better feel," Harries said.
Many of the custom harvesters who follow the ripening wheat crop across the nation's breadbasket are entirely skipping Texas and Oklahoma this year because of poor crops there and simply waiting for harvest to begin in Kansas, Harries said.
"We would be harvesting right now if it wasn't wet," he said.
A few farmers got into their fields last week around Conway Springs in south central Kansas for a little test cutting before the rains shut everything down, said Pat Lies, manager of the Farmers Co-op Grain Association elevator there. The quality of the wheat they brought in then was good.
Wednesday's government forecast pegged average yields nationwide at 42.4 bushels per acre. In Kansas, the average yields were forecast at 29 bushels per acre, down 9 bushels from last year and the lowest yield since 1996.
While the government forecast for U.S. wheat as a whole was down, the latest government report had one bright spot: The forecast for soft red winter, at 454 million bushels nationwide, is up 2 percent from last month's estimate. The nation's white winter wheat is estimated at 206 million bushels nationwide, down 1 percent from a month ago.