WOOSTER, Ohio — The wheat crop in Ohio and Pennsylvania is down — it’s unclear just how much — but if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s predictions are correct, the decline could be substantial.
On March 30, USDA released its Prospective Plantings report showing the Ohio wheat crop at 580,000 acres, down a whopping 300,000 acres from 2011.
In Pennsylvania, things aren’t much better, with only 165,000 acres planted, an 11 percent decrease from 2011.
Farmers and researchers agree on the cause — a record wet 2011, which resulted in late spring planting, late harvest, and when the rain returned in the fall, it pushed back fall planting of winter wheat.
Good and bad
Ed Lentz, crop specialist with Ohio State University Extension in Hancock County, said the quality of planted wheat varies.
“I hate to use a cliche, but we’ve got the good, bad and the ugly out there,” he said.
Farmers will spend the next few weeks deciding how “good” or “ugly” their wheat really is, and whether they’re better off planting corn or beans in its place.
Doug Goyings, chairman of Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program, figured about 70 percent of the wheat in his county, Paulding County, will stay in the ground. He recently applied nitrogen to his own wheat, well ahead of schedule.
“We were surprised that we needed it this early, but it’s not a normal year,” he said, adding he’s seeing a range in quality from “the best wheat to the poorest.”
Lentz said some farmers might be inclined to treat their wheat as a cover crop-only, although it definitely “wasn’t their original plan.”
If that happens, the harvested Ohio and Pa. wheat acreage could drop even further, affecting local supplies of not only wheat, but its main byproduct — wheat straw.
“I think that’s where we’re going to see an effect on straw as much as grain,” Lentz said, noting some farmers may decide to keep their wheat in the ground, for the straw value alone.
Wheat straw is the primary crop used for livestock bedding, as well as urban and landscape use. Wheat grain can be stored for periods of shortage or heavy demand, but straw, Lentz said, is not an easily stored commodity.
Nationally, the 2012 winter wheat planted area is 41.7 million acres, an increase 3 percent from last year. But you’ll have to travel beyond state lines to find that kind of supply.
Bill Wallbrown, co-owner of Deerfield Farms Service, said there definitely is good wheat in Ohio and Pennsylvania, with early signs of greenup.
Most of the farmers he deals with applied nitrogen in the last week or two, and some are looking at a second application in the near future.
He still expects to see a reduction come harvest time in eastern Ohio and western Pa., but “the wheat that’s good … is good,” he said.
Time to fertilize
Lentz warned farmers about applying nitrogen fertilizer too early in the season, but in a news release dated March 29, he waved the green flag.
“This is the time to do it, but don’t worry if you can’t get on the field yet because you still have time,” he said. “In fact, you have maybe four to six weeks depending on the weather and how fast we warm up. The warmer it is, the narrower the window, and the colder the spring, the wider the window.”
Spring nitrogen should be applied before the beginning of stem elongation to maximize yield potential, save money and guard the environment, he said.
The general recommendation is to apply nitrogen one time between green-up and early stem elongation. That leaves anywhere from four to eight weeks, depending on the year, to apply nitrogen without having any yield decreases.
Into the air
Another issue is volatilization — the loss of beneficial ammonia gas to the atmosphere.
“We are experiencing unusually warm temperatures very early this year,” he said. “Growers need to be aware that there is the potential for volatilization losses at these temperatures if the area doesn’t get rain soon enough after application of urea products.”
OSU Extension research has shown volatilization losses may contribute to a yield loss of 10 bushels per acre under these conditions.
“Nitrogen losses may be severe under these conditions if rain does not occur between 48 and 72 hours after application,” Lentz said. “If these conditions occur when applying urea, a urease inhibitor may be used, which should protect urea from volatilization losses for at least a week.”