Harvest Finally Draws to Close

The Kansas wheat harvest is finally drawing to a close with 95 percent of wheat harvest complete, according to the official statistics provided by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in its crop progress report for the week ending July 30, 2023. That is still well behind last year’s 100 percent completion at this time and the five-year average of nearly 99 percent.

Ahead of the weekend, the last remaining farmers in the harvest field were cutting down toward the Oklahoma border, primarily so they could report numbers to crop insurance, according to Lawson Hemberger, MKC senior location manager of rail terminals who is based out of the Sumner County Terminal in Milan. Hemberger oversees both of MKC’s current terminal elevators as well as the one under construction near Sterling. The terminal in Milan covers Sumner County, southwest of Wichita, and into neighboring Harper and Cowley counties.

The terminal took in its first loads of wheat around June 8. While that makes the length of harvest very long in total, Hemberger noted the majority of acres were harvested by the Fourth of July. The area caught five to six inches of rain that week, forcing farmers out of the field and starting a cycle of every-other-day rain delays, increasing weed pressure and falling test weights.

“This is definitely the first year I’ve seen a wheat harvest go darn near two months long,” he said.

Hemberger noted the area was pretty decent on moisture compared to other areas of Kansas as the wheat came out of dormancy. The wheat was up and looking pretty average, but then the area went all the way to early May before finally catching rain.

Hemberger estimated abandonment ranged from 10 to 15 percent. Some of those planted acres were abandoned before harvest so farmers could plant a second crop, others were zeroed out during harvest when some producers could send the combine down and back once in the field and not even fill up a coffee can.

He noted he was holding his breath when the rains arrived — calling it the do-or-die moment — but the wheat was at the exact right stage to fill the kernels that it put on. Test weights were excellent during the first few weeks of harvest, right at 60 to 60.5 pounds per bushel.

Yields were widespread from five bushels per acre — primarily where crop insurance would not release acres ahead of harvest — up to 48 bushels per acre. For the early part of harvest ahead of the holiday, Hemberger estimated most farmers averaged about 20 bushels per acre.

Protein was exceptional — even higher than last year’s drought-stressed crop — with Hemberger estimating 80 percent of wheat coming in was at 13 percent protein or higher. He noted for wheat report readers that the protein levels are mostly locked in once the wheat matures, meaning the protein values do not drop significantly like test weight.

The Sumner County Terminal has four different pits, allowing MKC to set up a really good segregation plan. Hemberger explained that most of the time they have four to five protein breaks — so trying to separate every percentage point (10 percent, 11 percent, etc.). This year, the crop came in so much higher with protein content that they had to adjust that segregation plan every other day to continue separating the highest protein wheat. He noted they are putting higher protein wheat — 14 and higher — into long-term storage, stashing it away for another time when good protein wheat may not be as readily available as this year’s crop.

Hemberger reported the most consistently reported top wheat variety this year was AgriPro’s Bob Dole, which was developed by K-State. He noted producers also highlighted Larry, also developed at K-State, and Paradise from Polansky Seed, as varieties that performed well in the area this year.

After the big rains around July 4, however, the rain kept coming. As a result, damage has substantially increased on those tail-end acres and test weights dropped off and at the end of harvest were down to 56 to 57 pounds per bushel. Weeds were a whole other debacle as producers struggled to control late-season emergence options in order to harvest. Crop insurance ended up zeroing out some fields due to crabgrass that came in after pigweed was sprayed.

Even with the frustrating end of harvest, Hemberger reported this year’s harvest was better than expected.

“We figured we got about 60 to 65 percent compared to a normal year,” Hemberger said. “Looking back at where we were going into May, we didn’t think we would have a crop at all.”

Despite the challenges the rain caused for the wheat, the ample moisture means the fall crops are looking really good, even with the long period of triple-digit weather that is threatening the crop at a critical growth period. Hemberger noted a rain at the end of last week of 1.5 to 3 inches could not have come at a better time.

Now the challenge is to turn house quickly at the terminal to make space for those fall crops. Most of the wheat will be sent to local mills. The MKC terminal does have two train loaders, but with such a short crop, there is not a strong export market out of Kansas this year. Still, he noted they will load a few trains that were contracted back this spring.

Overall, this wheat harvest will be one for the record books, although not in the way that producers would prefer, according to Justin Gilpin, Kansas Wheat CEO. As of its last estimate, USDA predicted Kansas wheat production will total 208 million bushels on 6.5 million acres, the smallest crop since 1966.

Breaking down that overall number, however, average yields for 2023 are currently estimated at 32 bushels per acre compared to 19.5 bushels per acre in 1966. That gain is directly attributable to the improvement in available wheat genetics, recommended farming practices and decades of on-farm knowledge.

“What shouldn’t be lost in everything that’s going on is the gains that have been made through genetics to try and keep a disaster from being more of a disaster,” Gilpin said. “The 2023 wheat crop had more than its share of twists and turns, but overall, we’ve come a long way. Every year is a little bit different, but 2023 is probably going to be one of those years that does stand out for a long time on charts, and not just due to the overall challenges this crop faced. Combined with the market volatility and unprecedented geopolitical events — everything that is occurring simultaneously within the wheat market right now is pretty incredible.”

Learn more about Gilpin’s perspectives on this year’s harvest, supply-and-demand factors across wheat classes, end-use quality, international market influences and more in the latest episode of the “Wheat’s On Your Mind” podcast at wheatsonyourmind.com.

The 2023 Harvest Reports were brought to you by the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Cooperative Council.