Oklahoma's annual wheat harvest on par for an average year, if weather cooperates
The amount of wheat expected to be harvested this year is a little less than what was predicted in 2019.
However, the predicted amount of 96.5 million bushels put together by Oklahoma State University agricultural specialists, agronomists and crop consultants falls in line with average harvest numbers state farmers have seen the past decade, the executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission said Tuesday.
But this year’s predictions were a little bit tricky, evaluators said, because of a mid-April freeze that hit wheat fields in southern and southwestern Oklahoma particularly hard.
During an online-event hosted by Oklahoma State University, they observed that wheat growers usually can evaluate freeze-related damage to their crops within 10 days of a typical freeze.
That isn’t necessarily true this year, though, because crops closer to the Red River were entering their pollination phase when the event happened.
Some plants that continue to look healthy failed to fully develop, while others planted in the same fields died entirely.
“It varies from plant to plant,” said Heath Sanders, an agronomist with the farmer-owned cooperative CHS Inc. in Frederick, who evaluated fields in south-central Oklahoma for the annual review of the state’s wheat crop.
Before the freeze, Sanders continued, farmers in that part of Oklahoma were looking at “probably some of the best looking wheat I had seen in a long time.
“Farmers are disappointed,” he said.
To get the yearly estimate, experts typically divide Oklahoma into nine regions where estimates are made on how much of the crop was planted, how much of that was intended to be harvested and current crop conditions as harvest times approach.
In southeastern Oklahoma, the amount of acres planted fell by 70% year-over-year, primarily because of exceedingly wet conditions that kept farmers out of the fields.
Western Panhandle crops “have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” said Darrell McBee, an OSU Extension educator in Harper County.
As for the eastern Panhandle, McBee said what crop there is will “go backwards really fast” if the area doesn’t receive some rain soon.
In northwestern-central Oklahoma, crops are looking good and are expected to have above-average per-acre yields.
In northeastern-central Oklahoma, evaluators expected an average harvest for 2020, even though they noted some farmers had opted to plant corn, beans and sesame this year.
Ron Wright, the OSU extension director in Custer County, said he had expected fewer fields planted for wheat in west-central Oklahoma than what he found. He said wheat fields in that part of Oklahoma need moisture to fully mature before they are harvested.
In central Oklahoma, wheat was planted later than normal and subsequently fared better in dealing with the freeze than crops in southern and southwestern parts of the state. It too, however, needs additional moisture to fully ripen before it is harvested.
In northeast Oklahoma, farmers are looking for sunshine and warmth to finish their crop this year.
And in southwestern Oklahoma, crops were looking great before the freeze happened, said Gary Strickland, the OSU extension director in Jackson County.
Strickland said damage estimates are running anywhere from 5% to 80%, depending on the field.
“We had a great crop, until then,” Strickland said.
Normally, the wheat harvest estimate is presented each May at the annual convention of Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association members.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s estimates were presented in an online format.
Last year, evaluators predicted more than 119 million bushels would be produced from nearly 3.2 million acres of wheat they expected would be harvested in 2019.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that about 2.7 million acres were harvested, producing about 110 million bushels.
This year, evaluators are predicting about 2.9 million acres will be harvested with an average yield rate of about 33 bushels per acre.
Farmers continue to evaluate whether or not they can do better with other crops, said Keeff Felty, a fourth-generation farmer and rancher near Altus who grows wheat, cotton and sesame on about 6,500 acres and is the secretary of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Felty said last week that mid-April freeze’s and its effect on his wheat was still being evaluated by his operation.
“Personally, I had one field that we estimated lost about 30% to 40%, then checked it again a week later and determined it was a total loss. I have another field where we have estimated it lost about 20%, and it looked about the same when we checked on it again.”
Felty said badly damaged fields will end up being harvested for hay.
In the short-run, Felty said the coronavirus health scare actually boosted spot prices for wheat on commodity markets as shoppers cleared grocery aisles of flour and other wheat-based products.
However, he said another grower told him the pandemic had just moved prices that had been bad and had become worse back to just being bad.
Wheat prices in Oklahoma closed Tuesday ranging from $4.43 to $4.74 a bushel. A year ago, prices ranged from $3.61 to $4.03 a bushel.
“This is so new, I don’t think we know yet what the effects are, or, how far-reaching they will be,” Felty said.
The same uncertainty is being felt about this year’s wheat harvest predictions.
“When you look at the 10-year average, we are about right on par,” said Mike Schulte, the wheat commission's executive director. “But if we don’t have any moisture the next two weeks, that could impact us negatively.
"There is a lot that could happen between now and a month from now, when we start bringing the crop in.”