Wheat farmers are preparing for a dismal wheat crop this year, with much of the state's wheat damaged by late spring freezes coupled with hail.
Oklahoma producers are expected to harvest 85.5 million bushels of wheat this year, a 45 percent drop from last year's 154.8 million bushels, the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association announced at its annual meeting this week.
And the prediction was made before Thursday night, when temperatures again dipped below freezing in many areas of the state, said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission. He believes the association's prediction is optimistic.
Six freezes since March 20, on top of a yearslong drought, has left wheat crops extremely stressed and without a well-developed root system, he said. The damage is worst in southwest Oklahoma, near Chatanooga, Altus and Frederick, in central parts of the state and the Panhandle. In north central and northwest Oklahoma, the crop looks average, he said.
“I don't think anything prepares them for this,” Schulte said of the state's wheat farmers. “We might see one or two late freezes but nothing like this.”
The harvest is expected to start much later this year. Wheat farmers aren't expected to begin cutting wheat until the second week of June; last year, some began in early May. And that year was a bumper crop, well above the state's average.
Chuck Tolle, a wheat farmer in Deer Creek, said he's looking at beginning to harvest his 2,500 acres in north central Oklahoma June 20 — 10 days behind average and a month later than last year. His area dodged Thursday's night's freeze and the crop isn't showing any obvious freeze damage.
“I'm still optimistic. I'm still hoping we'll cut an average crop,” Tolle said.
But John Goodknight, who planted about 2,000 acres of wheat at his farm in Chattanooga, said he's expecting to produce a third of a normal crop if the weather is favorable through June. Goodknight, 74, has been farming for 60 years.
“I don't know if I've ever seen a freeze in May before. But we had one (Thursday) night. We were at 30 degrees for several hours,” he said.
Cool, wet weather with cloud cover is ideal, Schulte said. If temperatures climb above 80 degrees in the next month, the wheat crop could potentially burn up in a lot of places.
Some farmers' wheat is so badly damaged they are opting to bale their fields for hay rather than try to harvest it for grain.
The state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry is helping farmers pursue weed-free certification so producers can bale their crop and sell it to state and federal agencies that use the mulch for highway, right of way, restoration and reclamation projects.
Weed-free means a field is free from plants in any stages of bud, flowering, seeds or senescence, the department said.
Details about the program can be found at www.oda.state.ok.us/cps-weedfree.htm.
Oklahoma wheat harvest estimates (in bushels)
• South central and southwest: 11.4 million
• Far southwest: 5.5 million
• Southeast: 490,000
• Northeast: 3 million
• Panhandle (including Harper County): 2 million
• West central: 11.3 million
• Central: 15.1 million
• Northwest and west: 15.1 million
• Northwest and north central: 21.6 million
• Total: 85.5 million