New cropping alterative arises

Monday, July 21, 2003

When the wheat history is written for the Golden Plains of America, the thing that will set 2003 apart is the dramatic emergence of white wheat as a cropping choice.

In a year in which the bushels per acre ranged all over the place -- from lows in the teens to highs in the hundreds -- the standout performer was the Platte White wheat in contracted acres throughout the area.

"We had yields of up to 120 bushels per acre for the white wheat on irrigated acres in Chase County," said Tim Green, the grain manager for Frenchman Valley Co-Op's nine elevators in Southwest Nebraska. For the past three years, wheatgrowers in the highly irrigated Chase County and Perkins County areas have been planting an increasing amount of white wheat. But, this year, the white wheat movement took a major step forward as the result of a ConAgra contract offered through Frenchman Valley. Growers in the McCook, Imperial and Grant areas responded by signing up to plant Platte White wheat on 20,000 acres, of which 17,000 were irrigated acres and 3,000 were dryland.

To say the least, the results were encouraging. While test weights varied, yields for the white wheat in Chase County were consistently high, with Green tabbing them at between 80 and 120 bushels per acre.

For many years, the state's wheat authorities have wondered why more white wheat has not been planted in this area, said Bob Klein, the extension cropping systems specialist in North Platte. The major reason for the lack of white wheat was the market, which for many years was geared to hard red winter wheat. While red remains the predominant wheat choice in the area, Klein and others see white emerging as a increasing market factor in years to come.

So, otherwise, how did this year's harvest go? In a telephone check with elevator officials this week, the Gazette found agreement that this year was marked by a great variance in yields, with the overall crop described as good but not among the greatest ever. "We definitely did better than the past two years," said Jan Mahon, grain manager at Frenchman Valley in McCook. Similar reports came from Al Holub, manager of the Culbertson Elevator; Kent Been, Red Willow County extension agent; Doug Brown, assistant manager of the Decatur Co-Op Association in Oberlin; Klein; and Green.

"It was a good crop. We really needed it," said Brown in reporting that the Decatur Co-Op took in 3,571,255 bushels of wheat during the 2003 harvest. For the Frenchman Valley Co-Op, Green said total production also was up considerably over 2002, reaching close to 6 million bushels compared to less than 4 million bushels the year before.

The increased production was needed because prices tumbled, dropping from $3.39 per bushel a year ago at this time, to $2.70 a bushel this year. Because of the lower price, the growers now qualify for a dime a bushel deficiency payment.

Still, with close to 750,000 acres of wheatland in the 12 counties of Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas, the crop produces more than $81 million annually for area farmers. Even at lower price levels, there's still gold in the fields of the Golden Plains, and, hopefully, in years to come there could be an even bigger payoff if white wheat proves to be a continuing success.

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