Curiosity builds for next wheat harvest

By Jim Suber

Now mostly planted, the annual wheat watch for the next crop — this one to be harvested in mid-2013 — has begun, complete with a wide range of observations and insights.

A pretty good rain in early October did three things: one, it watered some tiny wheat plants that had somehow come up; two, it helped other wheat seeds sprout and emerge; three, it missed a lot of wheat fields in the state altogether.

As a state, we’re running on water vapors, akin to a car running on gasoline fumes. No water or fuel in the tanks.

News drifts in sometimes, a lot of it anecdotal or unofficial. There’s a squabble going on out there about some no-till conditions and practices on hard ground in western Kansas.

It’s over one wheat industry expert’s version of what’s happening with some of the no-till wheat ground that has become hard, and another expert’s view from being in the business of promoting no-till taking great exception to the other’s remarks.

Meanwhile, from the far northwest Kansas came a story that some farmers there were returning to the old sweep blade undercutters after several decades of using herbicides to kill weeds.

The sweeps, you see, ran a few inches beneath the surface to sever weed and grass plants from their roots.

These mighty sweeps would leave valuable residues on the surface to shade the ground and soften rainfall and reduce evaporation and runoff.

They were popular as conservation tillage tools for several decades.

They were massive structures pulled by big tractors.

They had V-shaped blades, often five feet across the top of the V.

They were rugged and dependable.

Any comeback is being attributed to some weeds’ recent buildup of resistance to the herbicides that put the sweeps out of business in the first place. It’s an interesting development.

Readers might know that this writer worked in a factory near Quinter in 1971 that built sweeps. It was Ideal Industries, known more generally as Flex King. It was famous for quality design, and being rugged with big steel.

It was some experience working as a laborer there and learning from fine welders, machinists and good managers. It was my first good paying job in Kansas and I established residency here while at it.

I made several life long friends there and consider that period of my life one of the most pleasant and rewarding.

Ideal sold sweeps throughout the Plains and as far off as Australia, also semi-arid wheat country. My heart has kept a warm place for more than 40 years for numbers of people from Gove and Trego counties.

Some are deceased, now, but they were some of the best Americans I ever worked with or knew in any setting.

I had helped in a wheat harvest a couple of years earlier as a visitor near Dodge City.

But the Quinter winter and spring was the first time watching Kansas wheat grow. There was great snow that winter, and by May the crop was stunning in its green whisper in the soft wind.

On a late May moonlit night, cool but not uncomfortable, a few feet from a wheat field ready to shoot its heads above the mother plant’s protecting leaves, riding quietly along with the stars bright and clear above, the window down so the night smells of air, soil, plant life and road dirt are on you…it felt so good to be alive and young it ached.

Some facts from the growers’ information organ, Kansas Wheat: wheat acres might be up across the state by as much as 7 percent, including 500,000 more in south central district, the leading region; acres on the rise by 100,000 more than last year in eastern Kansas, which already has doubled in five years.

The prospects for it all hinge, though, on rain. Said Justin Gilpin, Kansas Wheat chief executive after noting insufficient subsoil moisture to carry this new crop to harvest: “Timely rains are going to be critical in order for this crop to have a chance at success.”

Talk about a roll of the dice.

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