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Wheat farmers awaiting ‘million dollar rain’

George Plaven

East Oregonian

Published on June 8, 2016 12:01AM

Last changed on June 8, 2016 9:52PM

Heads of wheat turn from green to gold Wednesday in a field outside Mission.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Heads of wheat turn from green to gold Wednesday in a field outside Mission.

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Eastern Oregon wheat fields are already turning shades of amber in the wake of unusually warm weather that kicked off the month of June.

Temperatures in Pendleton reached 96 degrees on Sunday and 100 degrees on Monday, which has the crop maturing about two weeks ahead of schedule. But Mike Flowers, extension cereal specialist for Oregon State University, said there’s still time before harvest and the next few weeks could go a long way toward making or breaking this year’s production.

“This is a critical period,” Flowers said. “If we get cooler temperatures, I think we’ll end up much better than we did last year.”

So far, the forecast looks promising. Marilyn Lohmann, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Pendleton, said a low pressure system has moved in for the weekend, which should push temperatures back down into the 60s and 70s through the end of next week.

Lohmann said the system could also bring rain, though how much is still to be determined.

“It looks like everybody should get something,” Lohmann said.

Every drop of water counts for dryland farmers in June. Flowers said this is what’s known as the grain-fill period for wheat, when plants divert moisture and nutrients to make plump, healthy kernels. Without precipitation, the grain becomes pinched, resulting in a lower test weight and overall yield.

“We need to have moisture during that grain-fill period,” Flowers said. “That’s the million dollar rain.”

Pendleton typically averages about an inch of precipitation for June, though totals may vary depending on location. Areas east of town usually see a little more rain, while areas west of town usually see a little less. Currently, the whole region is down about a quarter-inch of rain for the month, though Flowers said early season precipitation was much better than it was a year ago.

“Our saving grace this year is we’ve had a more normal crop year for average rainfall,” he said. “It’s looking like, with the extra moisture, the crop is going to fare better.”

Not surprisingly, Flowers said the fields are maturing more quickly around Lexington and Heppner, where harvest usually begins sometime around the Fourth of July. In higher rainfall areas, such as Helix and Adams, harvest takes place closer to the middle of the month.

Though he’s based out of Corvallis, Flowers is no stranger to Eastern Oregon, where the majority of the state’s wheat is grown. He was in the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, talking with local growers about conditions in their fields and last weekend’s heat wave.

“It’s going to be another early year for us, just like last year,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Umatilla County harvested 11.3 million bushels of winter wheat in 2015, and 3 million bushels in Morrow County. Those yields came after three consecutive years of drought. In 2012, the totals were 16.3 million bushels in Umatilla County and 5.4 million in Morrow County.

If conditions can stay cool, Flowers said he is hopeful they can buck the trend and get back to a closer-to-average harvest this year.

“We hope cooler temperatures will lengthen that grain-fill period as long as we can,” he said. “That will be the crop.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.



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