Harvest is well underway for California’s 700,000-acre winter wheat, and growers are generally pleased with the grain crop.

It has been one of the wettest fall/winter growing seasons in the past five years. Central Valley dryland producers are happy about that. Coastal dryland areas had a bit too much rain that hampered early production.

While the rain was most beneficial to Central Valley dryland growers, irrigated growers also benefitted, saving the costs of at least two irrigations. Cool temperatures have delayed the start of harvest, particularly in the Central Valley; however, the mild temperatures have allowed longer head filling time resulting in higher yields.

The cool spring has delayed planting of the spring wheat crop in the Tulelake area of far northern California.

Growers and pest control advisers (PCAs) were looking for another bad stripe rust year with all the rain and cold. However, it did not materialize. Rust was spotty. Resistant varieties and occasional fungicide treatments kept rust in check.

“Dryland wheat growers in Yolo and Solano counties say they have the best crop they’ve seen in years,” said Cymantha Fredrickson, assistant director of the California Wheat Commission.

Fredrickson made her comment at a Tulare cereal grains field day sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension. She was on a tour of the state cereal grain field days.

She said Wheat Commission grower members from the Delta area and on the coast reported too much rain. In the Delta, excess moisture creates drainage problems and the 36 to 37 inches in some coastal areas was too much for dryland production.

Although stripe rust was not as widespread as expected, it did hit triticale harder than wheat this season in the Central Valley, according to Fredrickson.

Steve Wright, UC farm advisor for Tulare County, agreed that triticale was hit harder by stripe rust than wheat in his county.

“All PCAs and growers were watching for stripe rust this year since it was projected to be a bad rust year. There were hits, but it never took off and blew up like it did in 2003,” said Wright. “Newer varieties still have pretty good resistance and some fungicides went on, but overall it was not that bad. Even in the Sacramento Valley, stripe rust did not take off as expected this year.”

This year was a stark contrast to 2003, one of the worst stripe rust years in a long time. Wright estimated that 80 percent of varieties planted seven years ago were not resistant to rust. The few resistant varieties planted that year were overwhelmed with spores from infected fields and succumbed to rust. Breeders lost resistance in new varieties in just two years when that happened, Wright noted.

Wright said some dryland grain producers in his county could likely harvest 2 tons of grain this year.

Jason Nearn, merchandiser for Penny Newman Grain, said he expected dryland yields to range from a half ton per acre to more than 1.5 tons per acre.

Regardless of the spread, it will be the first grain harvest in at least two years or longer.

“A lot of dryland growers planted anticipating only a cover crop with minimal inputs. When they saw the long range forecasts calling for more and more rain, they adjusted their fertilizer program to put on more fertilizer to take advantage of the grain yield opportunities,” he said.

“Some irrigated growers have never seen a better crop with yields approaching record levels,” said Nearn. The cool and mild weather will likely generate yields of 4 to 4.5 tons per acre.

The icing on the cake is that many irrigated growers saved two 4-inch irrigations due to good rainfall. “That is huge — saving 8 inches of water,” Wright said.

Tulare County is the No. 1 dairy county in the nation and generally 75 percent of the wheat crop is chopped for silage. This year it was no more than 50 percent, estimates Wright.

“Silage prices are really down in the dumps — $18 to $24 per ton. While grain prices are not all that great, growers know they will get paid for the grain,” Wright added.

Grain prices are far below the $200 to $300 per ton of three years ago, but with the savings on water and other reduced input costs and not having to spray for aphids, the economic outlook for this 2010 crop is not that bad.

Spot prices are about $160 per ton currently, according to Nearn. However, he added, many irrigated growers locked in $200 to $220 per ton prices early on for their 2010 crop.

California wheat is in demand because it is considered higher quality than wheat from other parts of the country.

“We have the world’s largest tortilla factor in Dinuba, Calif., where Ruiz Foods makes 1 million tortillas a day. They are a big wheat user. They, like many of the millers in Los Angeles, want California wheat because it is high in quality and protein,” said Nearn.

The future does not look too bad for California wheat. Nearn said $190 per ton is being offered for the 2011 crop.

“The market is saying plant wheat next year. However, growers are reluctant to make commitments with the uncertain water situation in California.

“Water deliveries are up to 45 percent of contracted supplies this year. That is good, but what is going to happen next year? No one can be certain,” said Nearn.

“All crops are impacted by water availability,” he said.

In a recent report from the California Wheat Commission, growers throughout the state had these comments about crops in their areas:

Commission member/handler J.W. Cope of Winema Elevators, Tulelake, Calif., said it seemed like winter 2010 lingered long in far northern California. “We have experienced sub-freezing temperatures and damaging winds in Siskiyou and Modoc counties that desiccated an already cold and water-stressed emerging crop.

“Several fields have been replanted. Most of the spring-planted cereals were or will be planted two to three weeks late due to uncertainties over irrigation supplies and the untimely rain and snow showers. Few of the spring cereals are beyond the five-leaf stage as our daily high temperatures have rarely exceeded 55 degrees.

“Our planted acreage will be reduced and will reflect a noticeable switch from wheat to barley. We are projected to receive reduced irrigation deliveries which are subject to further curtailment if protected species and prescribed lake and river flow levels are jeopardized. Much of the available irrigation water will be first allocated to perceived higher value potato, onion, alfalfa and mint crops.”

Davis, Calif., grower/commissioner Lee Jackson reports, “Cool May temperatures delayed crop maturity and lengthened the grain-fill period.

“On balance, this should result in increased yields. Extra moisture at this time of the season, however, is not that desirable. It prolongs the activity of pathogens such as the stripe rust. The Central Valley crop looks about one to two weeks late this season.”

Birds Landing, Calif., grower Alan Freese reports, “My gut feeling is that we will be later harvesting, and we will start to see some weeds come up in the grain as it opens up to maturing. I don’t think that the wheat in this area is mature enough for sprouting.”

Hanford, Calif., grower Jeremy Freitas, reports: “Weather issues have not had a significant effect on yields, and most growers in my district are expecting good yields and good quality.

“The wind has caused some lodging. This might cause minor problems with growers who were planning on stripper harvesting.”

Mike Holdsworth, Western Milling, Visalia, Calif., agreed with Freitas: “A cool damp spring usually tends to help yields (if disease is not present), but might possibly lower proteins.”

Imperial Valley grower Roy Motter reports early yields have been above normal. “I think that the cool weather in April and May has helped increase yields 5 to 10 percent. The only quality issue we seem to be having is lower than normal protein. This is due in part to higher yields, high fertilizer prices, low wheat prices and to some degree to the rains that we had early in the season where growers were unable to water run fertilizer.”

email: hcline@farmpress.com