With a full moon rising, the Kansas wheat harvest should start this week

Jun 15, 2017

Andrew Bergkamp (left) and Donald Bergkamp do final combine preparations at Bergkamp Farms south of Pretty Prairie on Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in preparation for the upcoming wheat harvest.
Credit Lindsey Bauman / Hutch News

The June moon, known as the Strawberry moon, will appear Friday. And Bergkamp figures, barring rain, he could be out in the field as soon as Thursday.

“These 90-degree days and sunshine really turned the wheat,” the Pretty Prairie-area farmer said as he worked on his combine header Tuesday afternoon.

The annual rite of June is gearing up in Kansas. It’s a time of year marked by long, hot days of combines rolling through ripen wheat. Trucks kick up dust as they travel the dirt roads to the elevator.

It’s a time when farm families gather to help bring in the bounty, including at Bergkamp farm where the harvest hands will include his nephews. He won’t know the true estimate of this year’s wheat until he gets the combine started, but he thinks he could have an average crop.

But this year’s harvest doesn’t have the same anticipation as it has in the past for some Kansas farmers. The harvest has been plagued with issues, including drought, snow and viruses.

Moreover, farmers are battling a struggling farm economy. Wheat prices have come up some, to $3.60 on Tuesday, but it’s not at break-even levels yet, said Bergkamp. He needs about $4.25 a bushel to do that.

“And that isn’t paying yourself wages,” he said.

Bergkamp backed off on replacing some of his equipment. On some dry land wheat fields, he cut back on fertilizer and fungicide - focusing inputs on his better fields. With the wheat prices at the levels they are, “it doesn’t pay to put it on everything.”

He might sell some across the elevator scale to pay the bills, but will hold on to what he can for a better price.

“Farming is like gambling,” he said.

While Kansas is known as the nation’s breadbasket, this year’s harvest isn’t nearly as big as generations past. Kansas farmers planted 7.4 million acres this year, the lowest in a century.

That will trickle into the border town of Kiowa, in Barber County, where wheat harvest typically gets started.

Steve Inslee, general manager of OK Co-op Grain said with more acres and better yields last year, his elevator cooperative binned 3.2 million bushels. This year he is hoping to hit 2.8 million.

Farmers are beginning to plant more fall crops, he said.

“The farmers can’t survive where wheat prices are right now,” said Inslee, adding that a few farmers in his territory have also cut back on fertilizer and other inputs to make everything pencil.

Yields could be across the board this year.

“I think we could have some 60-bushel wheat out there in the field, but we will probably have some 20 bushel, too,” Inslee said.

Inslee hasn’t had loads come through the elevator scales, yet, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if someone was trying to test cut on this day. However, he doesn’t expect harvest to get started much until the end of the week or the weekend.

Terry Kohler, general manager at Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. in Garden Plain, said harvest could begin in their area by the end of the week, too. The cooperative has a location at Pretty Prairie.

Humidity and moisture could keep farmers out of the field.

“I think we’ll get a sample (Wednesday),” Kohler said. “It is really getting pretty close. Guys want to try and see where it is at.”

The harvest here could also be a mixed bag in terms of yields, he said.

“This year we could have 20-bushel wheat on one side of the road and the other is 60-bushel wheat,” he said.

While Kansas farmers are preparing the harvest start, Claflin-area custom harvester Mike Dolechek has been on the harvest trail for a few weeks.

At present, he and his three-combine convey, which includes his son, Dane, is moving to Sawyer, Kansas, where harvest should begin by Monday. It took him just nine days to cut the West Texas job.

The crop was far from a bin buster, he said, noting it has been hit by rust, mosaic and drought.

“I didn’t talk to anyone who cut good wheat,” Dolechek said. “There was a lot of 20-bushel wheat.

“It was just Mother Nature. We were hit with a lot of different things this year. But we haven’t had good wheat in West Texas for a long time.”

The trail north doesn’t look promising, either. After Sawyer, they stop near Johnson, Kansas where wheat streak mosaic has crippled yield potential. Wheat streak mosaic is caused by farmers not controlling their volunteer wheat.

His final stops in the Dakotas are struggling as well, Dolechek said. In South Dakota, wheat has been zeroed out because of drought. Parts of North Dakota has been dry enough they can’t get their spring wheat going.

“It’s discouraging for everyone,” he said. “Everyone is in a bad way. If anyone wants to know why the ag economy is suffering, just look at Mother Nature.”

Custom cutters are among then. Part of they way they get paid is by the bushel. On top of that, besides Kansas, there are fewer acres nationally.

“If they don’t have a crop, we don’t make any money, either,” Dolechek said.

Harvesters were near Bergkamp’s home Tuesday going through a good stand of canola. It’s another sign that wheat harvest will soon be in full swing, meaning folks should watch out for the trucks weighed down with grain, as well as the large equipment that will frequent the county roads and highways.

“Harvest is controlled chaos,” Bergkamp’s said. “Everyone is going 90 mph and still trying to be safe.”