Hot, dry spring makes its mark on wheat yields

By George Plaven / East Oregonian

Published Aug 22, 2014 at 12:02AM

IONE — Bill Jepsen keeps careful record of precipitation on his 4,500-acre farm about 14 miles south of Ione in rural Morrow County.

While total rainfall is actually slightly above average for the area since the crop year began last September, Jepsen said winter wheat yields are looking their worst in more than a decade. The problem, he explained, was poor timing.

Growers were feeling optimistic after wetter-than-usual months in February and March, Jepsen said. But just as things were looking up, Mother Nature turned off the faucet over spring — leaving wheat to shrivel at a time plants need water most.

That dry stretch, combined with the intense heat and relatively shallow soil, took a serious bite out of the local harvest. Most people are seeing their yields cut roughly in half, Jepsen said, if not worse.

“We farm on shallow soils here, so our April, May and June rains are critical,” Jepsen said. “We just didn’t get them at that critical time.”

Jepsen is hardly alone in Oregon. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014 winter wheat production is forecast at 40.3 million bushels statewide, down 17 percent from a year ago. Yields are expected to average 56 bushels per acre, also down six bushels when compared with last year.

Wheat is Oregon’s fifth-most valuable agricultural commodity and its most valuable agricultural export, according to the most recent figures from NASS. Umatilla and Morrow counties rank first and second in Oregon wheat production. Last year, Umatilla County farmers harvested 16.68 million bushels on 238,000 acres, and Morrow County harvested 4.25 million bushels on 133,500 acres.

Of course, 2013 was a below-average year itself, said Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist with Oregon State University in Pendleton. That left little moisture in the soil to begin with for dryland fields, and it essentially started this year’s crop on a deficit.

Shallow soils found in southern Umatilla, Morrow and Gilliam counties already can’t store as much moisture, Wysocki said, which places extra emphasis on the “million-dollar” spring rains. Without that relief, Wysocki said, some growers could see disastrous yields as low as five to 10 bushels per acre.

“Probably a higher proportion of people are having an average-to-bad year than an average-to-good year,” Wysocki said. “We just didn’t have timely rains.”

Spring rains are so important for winter wheat because that’s when the grain matures and really fills out, Wysocki said. Hot, dry weather also increases the protein content in winter wheat, which is not what overseas customers prefer when they use the wheat in products such as cakes, pastries and noodles.

“An inch of water in May is worth a lot more than an inch of water in November, because that’s when the crop needs it,” Wysocki said.

Farther north and east in Umatilla County, growers expect closer to average yields. Jeff Newtson said the area where he farms west of Helix is down about three inches of rain for the year, but it’s far from the worst he’s seen.

Newtson started harvest about a week earlier than usual this year. He typically averages 50 to 60 bushels per acre and said he’s exceeded that on his land closer to Helix.

Other fields reflected the lack of timely rains.

“We didn’t get too many later rains,” Newtson said. “You always hope for a good June rain. The heat had more to do with it than anything. It just shut the plant down, is the main thing.”

Preston Winn, who leases out farmland just outside of Weston, said he’s looking at 96 bushel-per-acre wheat despite being at least three inches below average on rainfall.

“I was surprised, with the lack of moisture. But wheat really is a resilient crop,” Winn said.

“In those shallow soils, you’ll find some terrible yields. But in deeper soils, they’re surprisingly good.”