Idaho dryland farmers say heat has zapped wheat yields
By JOHN O'CONNELL
ARBON VALLEY, Idaho -- Ryan Weston believes record heat and extreme dryness have already taken 90 percent off of his potential spring and winter wheat yields.
Weston, who farms on dryland in southeast Idaho's Arbon Valley, said healthy wheat remains in low pockets, but grain on the hills has all withered to the point that "there's nothing that's even worth running a combine through."
Dryland growers throughout eastern Idaho believe the heat wave's arrival has ensured they'll have a second consecutive poor year for grain.
Several heat records were broken throughout Idaho in late June, and the records have continued to fall into July.
On July 1, the National Weather Service reported Boise hit 110 degrees, breaking the previous record of 104 degrees set in 1924, Pocatello reached 101, breaking a record high set in 1990 of 98 degrees, Burley reached 101, 2 degrees above its 1990 record, Idaho Falls peaked at 97, 2 degrees above its 1990 record, and Stanley reached 94 degrees, well above its 2001 record high of 86 degrees. Temperatures were predicted to fall 5-8 degrees beginning July 4, before rebounding slightly on July 8-9.
"Last week, the heat started nailing it," Weston said on July 2. "I have crop insurance, of course, but it's not going to pay what I could get out of it."
After a dry summer last season, Weston shifted some of his wheat to safflower, a crop with a deep taproot that can survive with less moisture.
"Safflower is looking good. It might be what saves me," Weston said.
Arbon Valley dryland farmer Ken Campbell planted 1,500 acres of safflower this season and only 100 acres of spring wheat. He had to reseed 300 acres of safflower due to wire worm infestation, but he still holds much more hope for his safflower than his grain.
"We made way more on safflower last year. Spring wheat was almost a total loss," Campbell said. "I would say things look almost tougher now than they did a year ago. Even our winter wheat looks pretty tough this year."
His barley still appears healthy, but he'd be pleased to get half of his normal winter wheat yield.
In Soda Springs, dryland grower Sid Cellan experimented with minimum tillage on 300 acres. Based on the results, he'll likely reduce tillage on more acres next season to conserve soil moisture.
"It does look fairly good," Cellan said of his minimum-tillage grain.
However he said his six-row barley and 600 acres of spring wheat are "stressing really badly." In his growing area, the extreme heat was preceded by frost damage on June 20, when temperatures dipped to 23 degrees.
"We're suffering right now. The frost and the heat have taken its toll on us, and we're starting to go downhill pretty fast," Cellan said. "Some fields out north, I don't think they'll even put a combine in the frost and heat has hurt them so bad."
Soda Springs dryland grower Cleston Godfrey will likely increase his summer fallow acreage next season. He's planted much of his acreage with no tillage this season to retain soil moisture but hasn't noticed any definitive results yet.
"I think we're losing bushels every day," Godfrey said. "If we don't get a rain storm, it's going to be a pretty dismal harvest."