Farmers in Monroe County and the surrounding area are reporting record winter wheat harvests in recent days.
“This is the best wheat crop I’ve ever seen,” long-time Monroe County farmer Delbert Wittenauer said Friday. Delbert and his brother, Gerard, are partners in a large, widespread agriculture effort in several locations countywide.
Delbert Wittenauer reported seeing wheat yields as high as 122 bushels per acre this past week. In an average year, farmers can expect to bring in 60 to 70 bushels per acre.
And the wheat is high in quality, too. Gateway FS grain trader Adam Parker said the wheat is coming in with test weights of 60 to 62 pounds per bushel.
“A good average test weight is 58, and we haven’t seen any that low in the last week,” he said.
A higher test weight means there is more food product in that bushel of wheat.
Winter wheat is planted in the fall, emerges in the early spring as green sprouts, and within weeks, turns tan and then golden yellow-brown. Once it is dry, it is ready to harvest. In fact, it must be harvested.
Area farmers are rushing to bring wheat crops in before there is any more rain on them. Rain causes wheat grains to swell slightly, and they won’t shrink when they dry. It can also cause mold to emerge.
Parker said the first deliveries of this year’s harvest came to Gateway FS elevators last Tuesday.
“We are seeing the quantities being trucked in to us doubling every day right now,” he added.
Parker said another measure of success with the wheat crop was signaled Friday when the first 35-by-105-foot barge carrying some 1,500 tons of wheat loaded out at Gateway FS’s elevator on the Kaskaskia River in Evansville. That barge will be married up with 20 to 30 more and may soon be on its way down the Mississippi River — perhaps to overseas export in New Orleans.
Wheat crops have been improving incrementally for years. New varieties produce more product per acre and are able to better tolerate weather differences such as low rain.
And so have farming methods.
On Friday, afternoon, the Republic-Times spent an educational afternoon with Gerard Wittenauer harvesting wheat at his farm on KK Road east of Route 3. He and his son Mike were running two huge John Deere combines that were keeping a shuttle of trailer trucks busy delivering the harvest to the elevator.
The two farmers were cy
cling back and forth, cutting precise swaths of wheat. One combine led the other, and there were scant inches of overlap between their swaths — and nothing left between.
Air conditioning and filtrating allow the drivers to work in comfort on a 90-plus-degree day, and an AM-FM radio provided entertainment and information.
Instead of skilled driving, which both are well capable of, the men were depending largely on computer assistance to steer and move their combines. An array of digital screens — including a diagram of the field and paths to be followed — was shown in color on the top monitor. A white line showed the prescribed route for each cut.
In addition, the computer monitored the amount of wheat in the combine’s bin and performed calculations of yield per acre and displayed numerous other data for the driver’s information.
Wheat farming is often a risky business. Too little rain and ground moisture at critical times can reduce growth. Conversely, rain at the wrong time, especially when the wheat plant is flowering and starting to form its grains, can cause what is known as fusarium head blight, or scab. This, in turn, gives rise to what is known as vomitoxin, or technically, deoxynavalenol. Amounts in excess of one part per million make the wheat unsuitable for human consumption. Somewhat higher levels can be used in specific ways for animal feed, but reduce the crop’s value.
Bringing wheat to market is also hard work. Even with the modern comforts, hours are long, the ride across fields can be lurching and bumpy, and constant vigilance is required.
With combines starting at half a million dollars, this is critical. Damage can also halt a harvest at a crucial time.
And harvesting is not a five- day per week job. In the midst of long days and even nights, seven days a week harvesting is another story.
Gerard Wittenauer reported that his son, with whom he was working Friday, and his wife Jenny had enjoyed the arrival of their new daughter, Allison Rachel, at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“I told him he could probably be back at work by noon, and he said he would try,” Gerard said, laughing. “But he didn’t make it.”
He didn’t make it Wednesday, but was hard at work Thursday and Friday. And he will be the same in coming days as wheat comes in and a second crop of sorghum and soybeans is sown immediately in the cleaned fields.
But a farmer has to do what he has to do, and that won’t ever change.