The Kansas wheat harvest is one of the most important agricultural events in the US, as the state produces about a quarter of the nation’s wheat supply. However, this year, the harvest is facing a serious threat from drought, which has reduced crop yields and quality. In this article, we will explore how drought is affecting the Kansas wheat harvest, what are the consequences for farmers and consumers, and what are some possible solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change on agriculture.
What Is Drought and How Does It Affect Wheat?
Drought is a condition of abnormally low precipitation that results in water shortages for plants, animals, and humans. Drought can have different levels of severity and duration, depending on the amount and frequency of rainfall, soil moisture, temperature, and evaporation rates.
Wheat is a cereal crop that requires a moderate amount of water to grow and thrive. Wheat can tolerate some dry spells, but prolonged or severe drought can cause significant damage to the crop. Some of the effects of drought on wheat include:
- Reduced germination and emergence: Drought can prevent wheat seeds from sprouting or emerging from the soil, leading to lower plant density and uneven growth.
- Stunted growth and development: Drought can limit the availability of water and nutrients for wheat plants, resulting in smaller and weaker plants that have less biomass and grain yield.
- Increased susceptibility to pests and diseases: Drought can weaken the immune system of wheat plants, making them more vulnerable to attacks from insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses that can reduce crop quality and quantity.
- Reduced grain quality and quantity: Drought can affect the formation and filling of wheat grains, leading to lower grain weight, size, protein content, and test weight. These factors can affect the market value and end-use quality of wheat for baking, milling, or animal feed.
How Is Drought Affecting the Kansas Wheat Harvest This Year?
According to the US Drought Monitor, as of August 8, 2023, about 88% of Kansas was experiencing some level of drought, with 32% in severe drought and 12% in extreme drought. The drought conditions have been worsened by high temperatures and low humidity, which have increased evaporation rates and water demand.
The drought has had a negative impact on the Kansas wheat harvest this year, which started in late June and is expected to end in mid-August. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), as of August 6, 2023, only 69% of the Kansas winter wheat crop was rated good or excellent, compared to 85% last year. The USDA also estimated that the Kansas winter wheat yield would be 39 bushels per acre, down from 50 bushels per acre last year.
The reduced yield and quality of wheat have affected the income and livelihoods of Kansas farmers, who rely on wheat as their main source of revenue. According to the Kansas Wheat Commission (KWC), the average price of wheat in Kansas was $6.35 per bushel as of August 9, 2023, down from $7.25 per bushel last year. The KWC also estimated that the total value of the Kansas wheat crop would be $1.4 billion this year, down from $1.9 billion last year.
The drought has also affected the consumers of wheat products, such as bread, pasta, cereal, and flour. The lower supply and quality of wheat could lead to higher prices and lower availability of these products in the market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of July 2023, the average price of bread in the US was $2.05 per pound, up from $1.93 per pound last year. The BLS also projected that food prices would increase by 2.5% to 3.5% in 2023 due to higher production costs and transportation costs.
What Are Some Possible Solutions to Mitigate the Impact of Drought on Wheat?
Drought is a natural phenomenon that cannot be prevented or controlled by human actions. However, there are some possible solutions that can help farmers adapt to drought conditions and reduce their vulnerability to climate change. Some of these solutions include:
- Improving irrigation efficiency: Irrigation is a method of supplying water to crops artificially using pipes, sprinklers, drip systems, or other devices. Irrigation can help farmers cope with drought by providing supplemental water to crops when rainfall is insufficient or erratic. However, irrigation can also be costly and wasteful if not managed properly. Therefore, farmers should improve their irrigation efficiency by using water-saving technologies, such as soil moisture sensors, smart controllers, and precision irrigation systems, that can optimize water use and reduce water losses.
- Adopting drought-tolerant varieties: Drought-tolerant varieties are types of wheat that have been bred or genetically modified to withstand drought stress better than conventional varieties. Drought-tolerant varieties can have traits such as deeper roots, smaller leaves, thicker cuticles, or faster flowering, that can help them conserve water and maintain yield and quality under drought conditions. Farmers should adopt drought-tolerant varieties that are suitable for their climate and soil conditions, and follow the recommended agronomic practices, such as planting dates, seeding rates, and fertilizer applications, to maximize their performance.
- Implementing conservation tillage: Conservation tillage is a method of preparing the soil for planting that involves minimal or no disturbance of the soil surface. Conservation tillage can help farmers reduce soil erosion, improve soil structure, increase soil organic matter, and enhance soil water retention and infiltration. These benefits can help crops cope with drought by improving their access to water and nutrients in the soil. Farmers should implement conservation tillage practices, such as no-till, strip-till, or mulch-till, that are appropriate for their crop rotation and weed management systems.
- Diversifying crop production: Diversifying crop production is a strategy for growing different types of crops in the same field or farm. Diversifying crop production can help farmers reduce their risk and dependence on wheat, which may be more vulnerable to drought than other crops. Farmers can diversify their crop production by using intercropping, relay cropping, or crop rotation systems that can improve soil health, pest control, and crop resilience. Farmers can also diversify their income sources by adding value-added products, such as flour milling, bread baking, or animal feed production, that can increase their profitability and market access.
Drought is a serious threat to the Kansas wheat harvest and the livelihoods of farmers and consumers. However, there are some possible solutions that can help farmers adapt to drought conditions and reduce their vulnerability to climate change. By improving irrigation efficiency, adopting drought-tolerant varieties, implementing conservation tillage, and diversifying crop production, farmers can improve their wheat yield and quality, and ensure food security and sustainability for themselves and their customers.