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Kentucky wheat production is a tangle of inconsistency
By ANN HINCH
Tennessee Correspondent

EASTMAN, Ky. — Perhaps there’s no greater tangle of contradictions regarding the production of soft red winter wheat than in Kentucky, where per-bushel production on some farms has increased to record proportions.

Planted acres have dropped off steadily in the past seven years. On top of that, the percentage of harvested acres each year has been lower than in most other Farm World states. Last year, Kentucky farmers seeded 390,000 acres of wheat, but harvested only 300,000. In late 2003, they planted more than 530,000 acres, but harvested only 380,000, or 72 percent (this compares to about 90 percent in the other Farm World states, except Tennessee).

“It’s typically a farmer who doesn’t raise wheat for production,” explains Todd Barlow, executive director of the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Assoc. (KSGGA), based in Eastman. “It’ll go to hay.”

Less leaf, more scab
Hay – because Kentucky producers breed a great deal of livestock – but also as cover for tobacco. While other states have been gradually giving more acres over to corn and soybeans in the past 10 or more years, Kentucky’s acreage for both has held steady. A higher percentage of its wheat is usually left in the field to be plowed under for tobacco, a much more valuable plant, in the spring.

After Congress approved the 2004 quota buyout bill, however, tobacco planting dropped sharply in Kentucky. For the first time in more than 130 years, farmers harvested fewer than 100,000 acres of leaf in 2005. With its reduction, especially for smaller farmers, the amount of harvested wheat should increase, speculated soil specialist Lloyd Murdock of the University of Kentucky Princeton Research and Education Center.

Another problem facing Kentuckians is the recent on-again, off-again influence of the fungus, which leads to head scab. Murdock explained it only flares up every four or five years, but two consecutive blows in 2003 and 2004 were egged on by warm, wet spring weather and other unfortunate factors that all came together at once.

Scab-tolerant seed varieties and fungicide can only do so much – after all, he pointed out, the seeds only tolerate the presence of scab to a point. They do not yet completely resist it.

Good news was in the offing last week, though, in the form of a Jan. 12 USDA report showing national winter wheat seeding up two percent over last year, after falling between 2004 and 2005. There is no increase in Kentucky, though all other FW states are up considerably – but there is no statewide decrease, either, for the first time since 1998.

“Those who were going out of the wheat business, are pretty much out,” Barlow figures.

Miracle grow
While Kentuckians may plant fewer acres of wheat these days, those acres mean more than they did 10 or 20 years ago. For example, in 1989, farmers harvested 450,000 acres, or one-and-one-half times higher than 2005. Total production in 2005, however, was only about 10 percent lower.

How it happened is a story repeated by more than one Bluegrass State wheat expert. Twenty years ago, Owensboro businessman Billy Joe Miles visited England and brought home a better mousetrap – including the experts to build it.

“When I first came to Kentucky in 1990, the average state production was 35 to 40 bushels per acre,” explained Philip Needham, northern manager of Opti-Crop, a division of Miles Farm Supply, LLC.

In 1985, England’s farmers were producing average yields three times that of their Kentucky counterparts, thanks to a program of intensive wheat management. Needham, one of the team of British agronomists who eventually moved to Owensboro, explained this sort of planning is necessary in the U.K., where farm production costs are higher than in the United States and crop options are fewer.

“If you don’t make 140 bushels of wheat (per acre) … it would be hard to make money off wheat,” he said, adding the current U.K. average is 120 bu./acre or more, compared to Kentucky’s average of 68 bu./acre last year.

Granted, Kentucky is wetter, with 30-40 inches of annual rainfall compared to 22 in England.

The sun also shines more often here, with some temperatures over 90 degrees during parts of the “winter” growing season. Both are favorable conditions for fungal infection.

Still, Needham claims some Opti-Crop program growers have a five-year average of 80-90 bu./acre; some of those even saw 150 bu./acre last year. Other partners in the program are KSGGA, the University of Kentucky and independent consultant Wheat Tech, Inc. of Russellville, Ky.

Climate, Needham said, is only part of the formula. Clean, pure seeds free of damaged kernels are important, as is seed placement when planting – the English agronomists found American farmers, by and large, were not planting enough seeds or in the correct patterns for optimal yield.

Attitude is another factor. Needham estimates only about one-fourth of the state’s wheat producers use Opti-Crop’s intensive management, whereas it’s fairly standard practice in the U.K. The company also advises farmers in other states and even Canada.

“I tend to find the more innovative guys on the younger end of the spectrum,” he said, adding some growers with lower income needing to make the most of their land are also receptive to Opti-Crop methods. More conservative, older growers are generally more difficult to convince to change their ways.

“To be blunt, I guess they think they (already) know it,” Needham said.

(This is the eighth in a series of articles about winter wheat production.)

Published in the January 18, 2006 issue of Farm World.

1/18/2006