COLUMBIA — Golden wheat disappeared beneath the head of Ronnie Flatt's John Deere combine as he harvested one of his fields east of Hallsville. At Flatt's feet was a black cocker spaniel named Mikie.
Flatt, his son Brian and hired helpers, including James Davis and Greg Mabery, have been harvesting winter wheat since June 27. That is about a week later than usual.
A later wheat harvest due to the wet spring will make it difficult for Flatt and other farmers to plant soybeans in the same fields in time to ensure a robust harvest. While there have been reports of above average wheat yields in Missouri, average yields are expected to be slightly below last year. Economists project wheat prices will decline this year due to increased global supplies.
Flatt said he planted 1,300 acres of winter wheat last fall, which is normal for him. Across the state, many more acres of wheat have been planted than in recent years.
Nationally, the number of winter wheat acres planted was up 3 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. In Missouri, the increase is far greater — nearly 40 percent.
Jim Gesling, manager of Centralia MFA Agri Services, which buys wheat from farmers, credited the increase in part to last year's successful wheat season. During last year's drought, wheat was more successful than other crops because of its earlier harvest dates.
Flatt recalled a wheat yield of 108 bushels per acre in some of his best fields last year, much higher than the state average of 57 which was up from 50 in 2011. As of June 1, this year's forecast was an average of 52 bushels.
Brent Myers, a cereal crops specialist for MU Extension, said all the reports he has heard from this year's wheat harvest have been positive with yields as high as 78 bushels per acre. That's in line with Flatt's expectations of 60 to 75 bushels per acre in most of his fields.
Pat Westhoff, director of the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, agreed that last year's success contributed to more wheat being planted this year. Favorable fall planting conditions and strong wheat and soybean prices were also factors in the increase, Westhoff said.
"Most people are trying to double-crop wheat and soybeans, and soybean prices are fantastic," Westhoff said. "If you can get a soybean crop on top of getting a wheat crop this year, it could be a very good combination."
Since the wet spring delayed wheat maturity this harvest, getting soybeans planted soon enough has proven challenging.
Only about 51 percent of Missouri's winter wheat had been harvested as of July 1, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Progress Report. That's 21 percentage points behind the average for 2008-2012.
Wheat out, soybeans in
Any time Missouri farmers follow wheat with soybeans, Westhoff said, "you're kind of rolling the dice. You're hoping against hope there's not going to be too early a frost in the fall. If there is, your soybeans will never mature and you won't get a very good crop."
Bill Wiebold, an agronomist for MU Extension, found in a 10-year analysis that soybeans planted by July 15 yielded less than half of those planted in mid-May, which averaged 70 bushels per acre, according to an MU Extension press release.
Flatt plans on planting soybeans into the wheat stubble after harvest, but if he can't, he might consider planting tillage radishes as a cover crop. These aren't the kind of radishes that sell at market, but they may help improve the soil.
"There's a lot of interest in cover crops this year and the last couple years," Myers said. "If you can't do anything else, you might as well try playing with that a little bit."
Tillage radishes are planted at the end of the summer. During the winter, the radishes die, decompose and leave large holes in the soil, Myers said. The holes fill with less dense soil, which can improve the soil.
Prices expected to drop
Missouri and global wheat production is expected to be up from last year, although national production is projected to be down. Wheat prices are expected to fall from last year due to the increased global supply along with more corn and soybeans, Westhoff said.
Last year, the average price per bushel for wheat was $7.80 and as of June 12, the projected average price was $6.25 to $7.55 per bushel, according to the USDA. Prices for soft red winter wheat, the most common variety grown in Missouri, will be lower because it is the least expensive of wheat varieties, Westhoff said. Gesling expects prices to remain in the $6 to $6.25 range.
Prices were higher last year because the drought limited corn and soybean supplies and wheat became a more attractive option for some livestock feeders, Westhoff said.
The price change won't make much of a difference for consumers though, he said. Raw food commodities only make up about 15 cents of the consumer food dollar.
"You could have the wheat prices double or cut by half, and you're talking about changing the price of bread, or the price of pasta, or the price of cereal, by a very very small percentage," Westhoff said.
Flatt's goal is to grow wheat suitable for human consumption rather than livestock.
Most of the wheat grown in Missouri is soft red winter wheat, Westhoff said, and most of it will be used in the U.S. Compared to other types of wheat, a higher proportion of the crop is fed to livestock. The flour milled from soft red winter wheat is used primarily for cakes, cookies and crackers, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
Flatt hopes to complete his wheat harvest early this week. It's been pretty much non-stop from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day since June 27, he said.
Flatt and his family did take a few hours off to buy fireworks and celebrate Independence Day.
"I'm still kind of a kid when it comes to that," he said.
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