Hayes, Kansas – It’s been a tough year for the State Trademark Wheat crop.
This hardy plant is a fighter. But even for a grain seemingly made to succeed on these unforgiving plains, relentless drought is testing its limits.
Wheat farmers like Chris Tanner in northwest Kansas feel like they’re on a roller coaster.
“It can be very, very abundant, or it can be the exact opposite and be starvation,” Tanner said. “You have to learn to weather these storms in life.”
Lately these storms have been closer to the Dust Bowl than to a flood.
After the rains stopped last spring, most of his wheat fields in northern Norton County ended up producing less than 20 bushels per acre, sharply below his average yield. Many of them have not grown enough to harvest at all.
“Basically, it was a total loss,” Tanner said. “It’s terrible to watch your crop die.”
It was historical hot, dry, windy year through western Kansas. As relentless drought, sweltering heat and relentless winds hit the region’s fields, understanding the impact of extreme weather on wheat has become increasingly important for farmers and the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural economy.
As the nation’s top wheat-producing state, growth is about one fifth of all wheat in the US – the pain that farmers here feel wave effects around the world.
And a new piece research — a collaboration between Kansas State University and other institutions from Texas to China — is shedding more light on exactly what these harsh conditions can do to wheat crops, and why extreme weather could become more and more frequent here in the coming decades.
Reference point K-state research positions itself as the first company to calculate the impact of climate change on wheat production in the Great Plains. They analyzed how various combinations of weather conditions affect grain production in six states – Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas.
The goal was to answer a few simple questions with four decades of detailed data. What happens to wheat in hot weather? Or dry? Or windy? But what if two or three of these atmospheric conditions fall into the same field at the same time?
Not surprisingly, the triple hit of hot, dry and windy weather, known as HDW events, caused the most crop damage.
K-State professor of agronomy Stephen Welch conducted a theoretical simulation of the study, which showed how different climatic conditions affect plant growth. According to him, the complex impact of these three extremes occurring together is much greater than when they occur one at a time. And on the Great Plains, these HDW events are escalating.
“This exact combination of events has been increasing over a 40-year period due to climate change,” Welch said. “That’s a key factor.”
Here’s what the study found:
For every 10 hours a wheat field is hot, dry and windy, the amount of grain it eventually produces decreases by 4%.
This is specifically related to when HDW events occur during the critical last stages of plant growth. In Kansas, wheat usually reaches this time of flowering and ripening in the spring.
Unfortunately, this is also the time when the Kansas winds are at their strongest. On average, April is the windiest month of the year in Kansas. And the wind gusts were especially strong last year. Goodland and Salina experienced the windiest April on record.
The number of HDW weather events increased significantly over the study data period from 1982 to 2022 as greenhouse gas emissions led to a warming climate.
And the places that saw the most dramatic increases in the frequency and severity of these events were the ones that experienced the Dust Bowl nearly a century ago, including western Kansas. Southern High Plains already windiest region in the interior of the United States and one of the driest regions east of the Rocky Mountains based on historical averages. So it makes sense that small incremental climate changes would be keenly felt here.
Kansas State University professor and state climatologist Xiaomao Lin, who led the research team, said the study expects these HDW events to become even more frequent, intense and persistent as climate change continues over the next 25 to 75 years.
“In terms of the outlook,” Lin said, “we see the growth going to continue … especially without any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Another new report, from the American Meteorological Society, confirms these findings. This shows how rise in global temperature have led to an increase in extreme droughts worldwide in recent years and made unprecedented heat waves more common.
The increase in HDW events in the Great Plains is closely related to what is happening in the Pacific.
The study has established a link between the occurrence of hot, dry, windy weather here and the cycles Pacific Decadal Oscillationwhich the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes as a “long-lived El Niño-like pattern” of Pacific temperature shifts.
Understanding this link could help predict the long-term risks that the wheat crop will face as those Pacific temperatures rise and fall, Lin said.
Lin said the results of the study reinforce the need to develop new wheat seed varieties that can better withstand this particular combination of hot, dry and windy conditions. And provide tools that help farmers know when to expect HDW events and what to do when they hit their field.
“We can’t do too much (with the weather),” Lin said, “but we have to keep farmers informed.”
For now, wheat growers in Kansas must hope that the seeds they planted last fall can last until spring, when the drought ends.
Tanner, a farmer in northwestern Kansas, harvested enough wheat last year to make ends meet and survive until next season. But when the next season came, conditions did not improve.
The drought only intensified its grip on western Kansas, leaving little to no moisture left in the soil. Tanner ended up planting most of his wheat seeds in fields that were still covered in dead plants from the previous fall’s corn and soybean crop failure. At the very least, these pitiful remnants could help prevent the mud from blowing away.
About a third of the wheat he planted has not yet sprouted. Just seeds sitting in scorched earth. But as his fields move one inch closer to possible rainfall, he’s optimistic that these late-bloomers might get lucky.
“Honestly, this could be our best shot at production,” Tanner said, “because he hasn’t had a chance to die yet.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter@davidcondos.
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