A year of extremes is taking its toll on the wheat harvest across Eastern Oregon, with untimely frost and continued lack of rain expected to reduce yields for most farmers in the area.
Don Wysocki, extension soil scientist with Oregon State University’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton, said the crop is coming up short primarily due to an unusually dry spring and winter.
Total precipitation is about 70 percent of normal for the crop year beginning Sept. 1, 2012, Wysocki said. That means a shortfall of about four inches, which has a majority of wheat plants growing about 60-75 percent of average height.
Wheat is also producing less seed than it would under more favorable conditions, Wysocki said, with growers generally anticipating anywhere between 10-100 bushels this harvest season.
“In general, it’s going to be a far below-average harvest,” he said.
In particular, farms with shallower soils are heavily impacted by the dry weather. An unexpected May frost hit Umatilla County growers hard, and mid-June rains arrived too late to rescue wheat from the terminal stress.
“It’s one of those years you deal with the best you can,” Wysocki said.
Umatilla County routinely leads the state in harvesting soft white wheat, with 16.9 million bushels on 248,300 acres last year. Morrow County grew 5.88 million bushels on 131,300 acres, and Sherman County had 5.3 million bushels on 104,000 acres.
The statewide economic value of wheat was more than $472 million, considered an average year by industry standard. The 2011 harvest, at $503 million, was a near-record.
“We had good spring precipitation. That’s what really grows the grain,” Wysocki said. “Some years are different. Sometimes you get weather conditions that are favorable, and sometimes not.”
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission and Oregon Wheat Growers League, said the weather isn’t affecting everyone this year, but he has observed “noticeably” shorter plants in areas of Eastern Oregon.
Darren Padget, of Sherman County, farms 3,000 acres of wheat in Grass Valley at an elevation of 2,500 feet. The wheat there matures later than in low dryland fields northern Morrow and Gilliam counties, he said. In fact, the June rains “really saved our bacon,” he said.
Padget expects a normal or slightly above-normal crop this year, he said, and he is pleased with the quality.
“Given the year, I’d like to complain, but I can’t,” Padget said. “I’ve certainly seen worse years, that’s for sure.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.