July 4 is the normal standard for wheat harvest in Southeast Nebraska. This year, Memorial Day might not be far off the mark.
It’s the fastest pace from green to gold that Steve Baenziger has experienced in 26 years as a wheat breeder at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It’s equally unprecedented in Randy Pryor’s 30-year career as an NU agricultural extension agent in Saline County. And it beats anything Dennis Broz can remember as a wheat producer near Wilber.
“I’ve never seen wheat this early,” Broz said Monday.
Broz, who normally would be getting his combine prepped for harvest in mid-June, was busy with that task last week.
Global warming, maybe? “I think we’re just in an odd year,” he said.
But wheat watchers seem to agree that it was the unusually mild weather that started way back in early March that’s most responsible for an unheard-of timetable for harvest.
It brought the fall-planted crop out of dormancy much earlier than normal. There were none of the familiar cold snaps or spring snowstorms after that to set back early progress.
“This is literally the earliest we’ve ever seen in history,” Baenziger said of wheat development. “Whether it’s just a fluke, or not, we don’t know.”
In the latest measure of a major departure from normal, the Nebraska Weather and Crops report released Monday estimated that 81 percent of the crop already is headed out.
Average is 11 percent, and last year’s comparable number is 6 percent.
Broz is getting ready to host a wheat plot tour west of Wilber on May 29 that’s meant to showcase the latest varieties of wheat.
As matters stood Monday, he’ll be headed into harvest almost as soon as the guests at the University of Nebraska event head home.
Wheat has become less of a priority in eastern Nebraska in recent years because of the bigger income potential in raising corn and soybeans.
Statewide, corn planting ballooned to planting intentions of more than 10 million acres this spring. Wheat acres totaled 1.45 million last year.
But wheat is getting attention now because it’s harvested much earlier in the year and because that’s likely to be even more true this year.
Neither Pryor nor Baenziger is ready to conclude that he's witnessing a permanent change in the Nebraska weather pattern -- a shift that might be coming from global warming and a gradual buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere.
The debate continues between people who regard global warming as a hoax and others who see it as inevitable.
“I need more data to be convinced one way or the other,” Pryor said.
In any case, one of the spinoffs of warmer conditions is that Baenziger is working more with wheat varieties that are brought out of dormancy in the spring by heat units, as has tended to be true in Kansas, rather than by day length, which has been more the trigger in Nebraska.
Going to heat units never was a breeding objective for Baenziger. But because he looks for the best performance, and because milder weather has boosted wheat yields on the heat unit side in recent decades, that’s become the direction in Nebraska, too.
“Half of my nursery right now looks like it’s not waiting for daylight. It’s going to wait for heat units.”
He’s becoming more mindful of the risks that go with that in Nebraska, which is more vulnerable to a hard frost later in the spring than Kansas. “What happens next year if we have one of our later freezes? I could lose half my breeding material.”
With that in mind, he’s putting more conscious emphasis on the later-maturing varieties that tend to work off day length. But he’s also building the heat-unit factor into his breeding program.
“When you see something this unusual,” he said, “you don’t get scared. But you do learn from it.”