Winter, water hurt some of state's wheat crop
TOLONO — Area wheat farmers are starting to harvest their crops and, in some cases, finding their yields have been reduced by a harsh winter and wet spring.
John Little, who planted about 40 acres of wheat in the Tolono area, said he expects his yields to be "near average."
"Winter wasn't good for wheat, it was so cold. Plus, we had a lot of moisture that caused some drowned-out areas in the field," said Little, who has grown wheat for 59 years.
"I've been hearing about some good yields in southern Illinois — 70, up to 90 bushels an acre," he added. "I think ours is in the 75-bushel range. I haven't cut it, so I can't say for sure."
In years past, Little's yields have been as high as 90 bushels an acre, but this year, he predicted they will be "normal, average or slightly less."
Fred Kolb, a University of Illinois professor of crop sciences, said the state's wheat crop this year "was a little slow coming out of winter."
"Yield potential looked great, but in the northern part of the state, we lost some fields due to water damage or winter kill or a combination of those," he said. "Some fields were abandoned."
Some farmers had problems with scab, a blight that affects wheat. That occurred as the result of "rainy, drizzly, high-humidity weather that occurred when the wheat was flowering," Kolb said.
At The Andersons grain facility in Champaign, regional sales manager Brian Stark said the wheat brought in so far looks good.
"It's still early in the game. What we've started seeing locally is good quality up to this point," he said.
The wheat had decent test weights and appeared free of toxins, but the crops are a little wet, so harvest may take longer than the usual two weeks, Stark said.
"We anticipate the crop coming in waves over the month of July," he said.
Though winter wheat is a common crop in southern Illinois, it's more of a specialty crop in East Central Illinois. The most recent agricultural census showed that for every 100 acres of corn grown in Champaign County, only 1 acre of wheat is grown.
Kolb said farmers in southern Illinois can generally harvest their wheat early enough in summer that they can plant soybeans afterward, essentially allowing them to double crop.
"Most of the wheat from Mattoon south is double cropped," he said. "Farther north, it's year-to-year."
In this area, winter wheat is usually planted in late September or early October, Kolb said.
"It grows, then goes dormant through the winter. In this part of the state, it starts to head and flower in mid-May to a little after," he added. "Around here, harvest comes right at the end of June and beginning of July."
Snow can be a good thing for wheat since it tends to insulate the crop, Kolb said.
But wheat can be harmed by low temperatures, ice encasement or standing water, he said.
"This year, we had a couple cold snaps when there was no snow cover. We also had cases where standing water turned to ice," he said.
Little said most wheat grown in East Central Illinois is a soft wheat used for cake mixes, crackers and cookies, as opposed to "hard wheat," which is used to make bread flour. There's also spring wheat raised in the Dakotas and Minnesota, which is used for pasta, he said.
Little grows his wheat for seed for Illinois Foundation Seeds.
"The seed will be planted, and what that produces goes to millers who use the wheat to make flour," he said.
Little, who has been active in the Illinois Wheat Association, said he farms about 400 acres and usually plants a tenth of it with wheat.
"I started farming in 1955 when I got out of the Army from the Korean War, and I've raised wheat every year since then," he said. "It's an easy crop to raise, and it breaks up the workload a bit with the harvest coming during the summer. Plus, the fact is, wheat is a good crop for the soil. It gives soil cover over the winter. I raise it somewhat for that reason."
But he admits he also grows it for sentimental reasons.
"It doesn't pay as well as corn or soybeans, but I'm a little old-fashioned," he said. "I still enjoy seeing a wheat field."
— 55 percent of the Illinois winter wheat crop had been harvested as of June 29.
— By comparison, an average of 62 percent had been harvested by June 29 the preceding five years.
— 15 percent of this year's crop was rated excellent; 41 percent good; 34 percent fair; 8 percent poor; and 2 percent very poor.
Source: Illinois Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service