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Golden harvest

This week, Jim Peterka finished his best spring wheat crop in 45 years of farming southwest of Pisek, N.D., and Wednesday was helping his brother finish his wheat harvest.

This week, Jim Peterka finished his best spring wheat crop in 45 years of farming southwest of Pisek, N.D., and Wednesday was helping his brother finish his wheat harvest.

"We are thrashing wheat running in the 60-bushel area today," he said of the per-acre yield. "It's 14.20 (percent) protein and test weight of 65 pounds. I have never seen wheat that weighed 65 pounds a bushel."

The standard test weight for spring wheat is 60 pounds, and the long-term average yield is closer to 40 bushels an acre.

Peterka was running a 2002 Gleaner combine. The electronic monitor that keeps a running measure of yield caught his attention, Peterka said. "I've seen readings, and it's not totally accurate, but I've seen readings in the 90-bushels range. I have never seen that before."

"This is my 45th crop, and this is by far the best I have ever seen," he said.


Erica Peterson, marketing specialist for the North Dakota Wheat Commission in Bismarck, said that's what many are saying across much of the state. Western parts of North Dakota meanwhile, have a tougher row to hoe.

"For the eastern part of the state, we have been hearing pretty good reports, yield-wise, from 50 bushels to all the way up to 70 bushels (an acre) for spring wheat," she said Wednesday. "I talked to some producers and their combine's computer monitor was hitting 100 (bushels) in areas of the field. The highest (farm-wide) average I have heard is 80 bushels, in the southeast corner of the state."

That sounds like things are going better than the annual tour of wheat fields the Wheat Commission is part of, which pegged the statewide yield at about 37 bushels an acre, up slightly from long-term averages.

But the annual wheat tour found that out west, "things aren't so good," Peterson said. "Some of that wheat isn't even going to be harvested."

Since June, very little rain has fallen on much of the western part of North Dakota and South Dakota, shriveling crops, including hay, and prompting many ranchers to sell off their herds.

Enoch Thorsgard, who runs one of the region's largest cattle-feeding operations near Northwood, N.D., has been buying three or four truckloads a week of cattle from the southwest part of the state.

He has farmed and fed cattle since 1941, and has never had a wheat crop like this, either. "I've never even seen anything like it, it's unreal," he said. "Guys with wheat are making a killing."

With these yields, and with prices of more than $8 for much of the year and now nearing $9 a bushel, many wheat growers will reap two to three times the normal gross revenue per acre.


"I have some land I bought for $500, $600 an acre a few years ago," Thorsgard said. "It will bring that much per acre (in wheat income) this year."

The hard red spring wheat in which North Dakota specializes, raising about half of the nation's total, is prized for its bread-baking characteristics. It's a crop designed for northern climates; most of it is raised in states bordering Canada, and this year, things fell into place.

"It must be the cool weather conditions we had earlier and lack of disease," Peterka said. "And timely rains, too. We have been on the dry side here, but we did get very timely rains. Things must just have gone right for wheat growing this year."

Near $9

Spring wheat prices went up 25 cents a bushel Wednesday and were near $9 a bushel at many grain elevators in the region.

The Peavey elevator in Grand Forks raised its price to $8.94 a bushel.

The famous entry of the Soviet Union to the world wheat stage as buyers in 1973 pushed prices as high as $5 for a time, which would be equivalent to more than $20 a bushel in today's dollars. But average yields have risen 50 percent to 100 percent in the Red River Valley, too, in those 35 years and some economies of large scale have been reached, no doubt.

But the crop is a little behind average, maturity wise, this season.


A third of the state's spring wheat was harvested by Aug. 17; last year, 59 percent was harvested by that date, and the five-year average is 49 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service in North Dakota. With the past week of hot, dry weather, there's little doubt that well over half the crop is in the bin as combines were seen everywhere Wednesday in clouds of wheat dust.

"Last year, the state's spring wheat crop set a record value of $1.7 billion, and the average price per bushel received by farmers was a record $6.90, USDA reports.

This year, USDA figures farmers will get $6.75 to $8 a bushel for spring wheat, based on estimates of a couple weeks ago.

The spring wheat crop has been estimated to come in at 224 million bushels, down 4 percent from last year, Peterson said. But the recent high reports of harvest yields have topped earlier expectations, she said.

'Best ever'

Typically, farmers aren't prone to brag over good crops. But the facts are the facts this year.

"Most of them are saying it's the best ever," said Harold Weimer, manager of the CHS grain elevator in Drayton, N.D. He's hearing yields ranging mostly from 65 bushels to 100 bushels an acre. Other elevator managers cite yields reported from 35 to 75 bushels an acre.

It's not all profit, of course, as expenses are much higher, too.


Peterka said the cost of putting in this crop was much higher than last year's crop, and next year's crop will cost even more. "We are paying almost $4 a gallon for diesel fuel," he said, which is twice or more the normal price in recent years. A common phosphate-based fertilizer has tripled in price since December, from $400 a ton to $1,200 a ton for supplies purchased for the 2009 crop, he said. Land prices, including cash rents, have escalated rapidly.

But things look pretty good, Peterka said.

His other main crop is pinto beans and they, too, "really look good," he said "They are green yet, but I expect them to do really well."

Pinto prices are about twice what they often are, at $35 per hundredweight, and if yields end up as good as the crops look, farmers will gross as much per acre on edible beans as they would on sugar beets -- $700 to $1,000 an acre -- with much lower costs than beets.

"It's wonderful, just really wonderful, to be harvesting a crop like this," Peterka said. "Not only such a wonderful yield, but such a wonderful price for it, too."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com

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