LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Planting a crop is always a risk, but Nebraska farmers may be taking a bigger gamble than usual this year as they plant winter wheat amid continuing drought.
Nearly 89 percent of Nebraska is in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor compiled by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
That means farmers who plant now may not have enough field moisture for winter wheat to sprout. But those who wait for rain risk a killing frost before wheat roots can withstand the cold, experts told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/Pu0WWf ).
Because of soil types and other factors, most farmers in the state's prime wheat-growing areas in south-central and southwestern Nebraska can't wait for spring rains to plant corn or soybeans.
In alternating years, wheat is planted in fields left unplanted to boost moisture reserves.
"If you've got the ground and the seed and everything, you try to wait for your best opportunity," said Royce Schaneman, of the Nebraska Wheat Board. "But doing nothing just puts you further behind."
As of Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, winter wheat planting in Nebraska was 64 percent complete, compared with an average of 77 percent for the date. Emergence was at 16 percent, well below the 46 percent average.
Dan Hughes, a wheat farmer near Venango in southwest Nebraska, has planted about 75 percent of his crop and said his big fear was light rain.
"Less than half an inch and seed would sprout, but it wouldn't be enough moisture for it to root down," Hughes said.
There is some moisture 5 inches down, Hughes said, but wheat usually is planted 2 inches deep. If the roots can't reach the moisture, then the sprouts die, he said.
Schaneman said farmers in the corner of southeast Nebraska have a little more time than their western Nebraska peers to plant wheat and get it established before winter arrives.
"Everybody is putting the crop in and holding their breath," Schaneman said. "We know this drought can't last forever."
Copyright 2012 The AP.