Dryland wheat looks promising

A fungus called rust reported in some Curry County wheat fields reduces crop yield and nutrient value, costing farmers money, state agronomist Mark Marsalis says. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Leslie Radford: CNJ Staff writer

Dryland wheat farmers in Curry County are cautiously optimistic about having one of their best years in a while.
Paul Stout, president of the New Mexico Wheat Growers Association, said Curry County could be looking at its best dryland year since 1985.

“I think we have some really good underground moisture,” said Stout, 39, who farms 1,300 to 1,400 acres of dryland wheat in the Broadview area. “Ever since we kind of broke out of the drought in August we’ve been getting some good rains and some good snowfall.”

Stout said if conditions remain right, area dryland farmers could be looking at 50 percent increase in yield from the normal 20 to 30 bushel range.

But all the moisture — almost 20 inches in Clovis since August — has been a double-edged sword for some farmers, with reports of a fungus called rust cropping up in some fields of the county’s largest cash crop.

“Rust prefers moist conditions,” said Mark Marsalis, an agronomist with the New Mexico State University extension service. “(The fungus) has thrown a monkey wrench in the works.”

Not generally a problem in this area, rust is not toxic to animals that feed on wheat products. However, Marsalis said fungus reduces crop yield and nutrient value. In turn, farmers lose money.

Curry County Extension Agent Stan Jones said it is next to impossible to tell at this time how many of the approximately 200,000 acres planted in the county will be affected by the fungus.

“The moisture we’re receiving is not helping the situation,” Jones said. “There’s probably more than we realize.”

For the condition to improve, Jones said the area would need to dry out, but even then, grain crop yields would still likely be lower as the fungus attacks the plant causing it to not produce a full head.

Mike Willmon, who farms about 500 acres of dryland and irrigated wheat southwest of Clovis, said his crop looks good so far.

“The dryland wheat is starting to show signs of stress the last couple weeks,” Willmon said. “One more good rain would really help fill it out.”

Willmon is worried a low market price could offset the higher than expected yields.

Curry and Roosevelt counties are responsible for about 68 percent of New Mexico’s wheat crop. Silage is harvested mid-spring and is fermented for livestock feed. Grain is harvested later in June.

CNJ Managing Editor Rick White contributed to this report.