Recent rains should help Arkansas farmers to finish planting wheat, says William Johnson, wheat agronomist for the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas.

He said the rain should have provided good soil moisture for what he expects to be a 1.2 million to 1.3 million-acre crop.

The rain was overdue.

Johnson said some farmers had finished planting and needed rain to help emergence and growth. Other farmers hadn't finished but stopped to wait for rain before they resumed. "Some fields that were worked extensively lost their moisture, and the wheat was dusted in [planted no deeper than 1-inch] awaiting rain.

"We have had reports of wheat wilting from moisture stress. The rainfall, hopefully, will correct that problem."

While the rain this week was beneficial, farmers don't want to see heavy rains this fall, according to Johnson. He said drier falls typically promote good stands of wheat.

Johnson said most farmers in northeast Arkansas are finished planting wheat. Their optimum planting date ended Nov. 1. If they plant any more wheat, they should increase seeding rates and include a fall nitrogen application. Farmers in central Arkansas have until Nov. 10 to plant within the optimum window, and farmers in southeast and southwest Arkansas have until Nov. 20.

The wheat crop will be bigger than last year's crop.

"The reason is non-irrigated soybeans were hurt terribly by the drought, and some of these farmers are only growing farm wheat on that ground until they have some type of irrigation system in place.

"Also, some farmers are planting wheat on cotton soil to avoid having to pay the boll weevil eradication program fees. And with the extreme dry fall, many rice fields were worked up and planted in wheat."

The Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service has refined its numbers and reduced the statewide average yield of the 1999-2000 wheat crop from 56 bushels an acre to 54, Johnson said. "We thought we had tied the record of 56 set in 1998-99. It's still very respectable."

Johnson said the current wheat crop needs colder weather.

"Some wheat planted in late September has grown too large and needs cold weather to slow growth. It's unusual to see 80-degree weather this time of year. It really speeds the growth of the wheat. We need a normal weather pattern for this kind of year. We need lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s to slow things down."

Too much growth in the crop early can set it up for the possibility of winter kill in March when plants will be in a tender, vegetative state.

It also causes problems when scheduling nitrogen applications in the spring. If it's too big at that stage, an application of nitrogen will stimulate more growth and can cause more damage from a March freeze.

Some farmers tried to spread their risks by planting varieties that matured at different times, according to Johnson.

"Many farmers who planted in the early part of the planting window planted longer season wheat varieties and followed these later in the planting window with shorter season varieties. This allows them to stack the deck in their favor if we do have a significant freeze event in March."

Meanwhile, farmers are holding their fingers that wheat prices will increase.

Prices have increased some, Johnson said, but not up to levels that make wheat production very profitable. He said corn and wheat are usually "tied at the hip" and the fact that corn stocks are down some should help wheat prices.

"Wheat has already edged up some because of diminishing world supplies. If the Cuban market opens up, it would be a huge soft red winter wheat buyer," Johnson said. This, he added, would increase the price farmers in Arkansas receive.

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