By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News firstname.lastname@example.org
As spring rains work to conquer the drought here in Reno County, Norman Roth can't help but feel blessed.
Not far west from here, the plains are dry, the wheat is parched and the cattle pastures are hurting from lack of rain.
But rain has been falling across south-central Kansas - and at his farm he has received nearly 8 inches of moisture since a snowstorm in February.
This year, he said, should be another above-average crop.
"We all knew that whatever rain fell was what this crop was going to live on because it wasn't going to live on what was in the soil," said Roth, who farms near Nickerson. "There's just nothing in the soil."
Roth stood in one of his fields with Reno County Extension Agriculture Agent Cody Barilla Monday, assessing the county's wheat crop. Barring something uncontrollable, this year's crop should be a bumper one for county farmers, with Barilla expecting yields to surpass last year's average of 46 bushels an acre - and possibly even historical averages.
And, in fact, Reno County's fields are a bright spot regarding the Kansas wheat crop - among 28 percent rated good to excellent, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Last year was Reno County's earliest harvested wheat crop on record - a harvest that started before Memorial Day and, for some, finished by late May or early June.
Roth said he harvested his second best crop ever last year - thanks to moisture in the fall and winter. There was potential the crop could have been even better, but moisture shut off in March of 2012, hindering the crop's progress.
"There's talk it could have been crazy yields without the drought last year," Roth said, noting his yields were a bit better than the county average.
This year's crop - projected for a late-June harvest after last year's abnormally early one - has potential, as well.
"I don't think it's that good," Roth said, comparing it to the harvest of 2012, "but I think we have a good crop in our fields."
This year's crop has been fostered by perfect conditions - snow in February followed by rainfall in March and April. Meanwhile, cool temperatures are helping the crop fill its potential.
"The conditions we have this year are better than a year ago," Barilla said, noting last year's promising crop was halted when rains shut off in March. "Rain last fall helped us get a good stand. ... Temperatures have been right. It has been fairly cool. And as long as we avoid the great white combine, also known as hail, we should look good toward harvest."
Barilla said the wheat also has only minor disease pressure and there hasn't been a big outbreak of rust, which is typically common this time of year. In addition, Roth expects he has some minor freeze damage after temperatures dipped into the 20s a few times in April.
Roth's crop also has some traces of powdery mildew - a condition that happens when conditions are damp and cool.
Roth said he relies on Barilla and Reno County Extension to help him maximize his crop potential. For instance, he uses minor nutrients on his wheat each year, as well as tests the pH balance. Roth said he also does check strips to see if his applications, like fungicide, "pencil." For instance, last year's decision to put on fungicide didn't pay off, he said, saying he needed 3 1/2 bushels more an acre to pay for the spray. His yields were only boosted by 2.6 bushels an acre.
"Part of it goes back to extension," Roth said of management tools, noting he has done things, especially this year, that save moisture.
It could be late June before harvest combines start rolling through amber waves, said Dave Twiner, manager at the Cairo Co-op Equity Exchange at Turon.
But he adds: Who knows? If the weather turns hot and dry in a hurry, harvest could commence quickly.
A lot can happen between now and harvest, Roth said, noting that a year ago this Memorial Day weekend he was on a combine. It's still a good five weeks until harvest, he said.
"There's more potential for hail damage," he said. "With the late harvest it just gives you that many more chances."
"It can happen fast," he added.