Many local farmers had to start planting their winter wheat later than usual last fall, so many of their seeds didn't sprout before the cold season began. But Lloyd Wulfkuhle isn't ready to make any predictions about this year's crop.
"The old saying in the country is, 'Wheat's got nine lives,' like a cat," said Wulfkuhle, 72, who farms west of Lawrence and planted just over 300 acres of winter wheat last fall. "There's no way of knowing what's going to happen until the snow's gone and it warms up, and we can see if it starts to grow."
While he does admit that wheat not sprouting before the freeze is a rare occurrence, the last time it happened, he said, he ended up getting a decent yield, of more than 40 bushels an acre. So, again, it's too early to tell. But it's still unusual enough to worry farmers who haven't been in the game as long as Wulfkuhle.
The late harvest for corn and soybeans last fall is what pushed back the winter wheat planting season, which usually happens by early October but this year stretched into November. Freezing temperatures then showed up before many of the plants had begun to germinate, also a result of the dry soil conditions; winter wheat generally needs exposure to the cold weather in order to mature properly. Wheat is the third largest crop grown in Douglas County, with about 2,000 to 5,000 acres harvested every year.
But Bill Wood, director of Douglas County Extension, said it's better that the seeds didn't sprout at all rather than germinating only part way, which leaves them more susceptible to running out of energy and dying over the winter.
"But that's the way farming is — it's a risk, every year," Wood said. "Every time farmers plant their seeds they're kind of rolling the dice on what the weather's going to do."
He added that the possibility of a poor wheat harvest exemplifies the need for crop insurance. President Obama recently signed a new $956 billion farm bill that strengthens the federally subsidized crop insurance program, using savings from the elimination of the $5 billion a year in direct payments farmers had been getting whether they grew crops or not.
Many area growers didn't plant wheat at all or planted less than usual because of the late corn and soybean harvest, noted Jay Armstrong, a Muscotah farmer who is the Kansas wheat commissioner for this district. He estimates that farmers in the region planted about three times as much wheat in 2012, when the drought ravaged their corn and soybean fields and allowed them to start planting wheat as early as August.
Eudora farmer Danny Abel said that while he has never experienced a winter wheat season like this one, some of the "old-timers" in the area have told him that things could still turn out OK. The seeds could germinate in the late winter or early spring, though the plants would then need another freeze to fully mature.
"I don't know if that wheat is going to come up or not," he said, adding: "Wheat's kind of an unpredictable crop."