US heat wave spurs wheat harvest

The thermometer hit 106 degrees as I watched a string of silvery Allis-Chalmers combines churn through the flat wheat fields west of Topeka, Kan.

Behind me a constant stream of heavily loaded trucks roared down the straight highway with freshly harvested wheat, headed for Topeka's massive grain elevators. Across the flat bottom fields, six diesel locomotives hauled a seemingly endless train of grain-filled hopper cars.

The record high temperatures were not even slowing the harvest. Instead the heat was helping ensure what promises to be a record wheat harvest. And it will be made in record time on many farms thanks to the heat.

On the Dahlsten farm in central Kansas, my air-conditioned ride in a never-pausing combine went on until 11:30 at night. Powerful headlights led the way through the rustling wheat and the hot wind kept off any dew that would have forced an earlier quitting time.

Yet the hot, dry weather stretching from Texas into Canada has caused serious problems. State officials in the grain-producing areas of Texas, Lousiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana are calling for federal disaster assistance.

Cattle feedlots, hog producers, and large-scale poultry operations report that three weeks of temperatures repreatedly topping 110 degrees in the Southwest have killed large numbers of animals and have cut back on animal weight gains overall. Producers warn this could mean supermarket meat price hikes of about 5 cents a pound in some cases.

The most serious effects are being felt in the Southwest's urban areas. The loss of more than 100 lives, largely among the elderly and poor persons without air conditioning, is being attributed to the continued record high temperatures.

Forecasts call for more hot weather due to a stalled high pressure system blanketing the area.

So farmers are paying close attention to the weather. One Missouri farmer told me his cattle and hog operations would be in serious trouble if he relied on hired hands ranther than doing the farmwork himself with his sons. Hired hands would be ready to knock off at five, while Tom Mershon waits until well after that before moving any of his animals in this hot weather.

While other family members harvest wheat, Kansas farmer Kermit Hayes "fogs" the pigs, keeping them cool through the hot day with a fine spray of water.

The heat has added another chore this year -- combating an exceptionally serious chinch-bug problem. It is normal for the tiny black insects to move from the harvested wheat fields into the nearby corn. But the bugs thrive on heat -- and the expensive insecticide applied to control chinch bugs is not working this year because it must be activated by rain.

Still, one way of another, farmers here are confident that their bumper wheat harvest will be followed by at least reasonable corn, sorghum, and soybean crops. If yields are down somewhat because of the weather, then prices will be forced up a bit from their current low levels.

Chinch bugs and heat certainly have not slowed down Kansas farmer Martin Toll. To cultivate a soybean field, he drove a tractor hour after hour without any cab or even umbrella when the temperature in Lindsborg stood at 112 degrees. His comment: "Farming's biggest enemy is the news media, with its scare stories. One weather report can make the wheat price go up or down 10 cents with no reason."

He remembered in particular the reporter who saw the dust kicked up by an airplane and reported there was a terrible dust storm in Kansas, causing a rush of buying in the grain market.

Other farmers in Kansas and Missouri voiced the same complaint in response to nespaper stories comparing present conditions to "the dust-bowl days of 1936- 1937." These farmers wich prices could reflect the farmer's investment and hard work rather than representing panic overreactions by Chicago and New York speculators to often inaccurate weather reports or rumours about government policy.

Farmers here have their own answers to the weather -- and take pride in producing bumper crops despite weather extremes. This year's wheat crop was a good one, despite a dry fall that held up planting and then a heavy rainfall that washed out a good deal of freshly planted wheat last December.

Kansas farmer Anne Hayes explained that good farming "is a question of good water management." In her particular area this has meant a shift to "conservation tillage." This substitutes minimum discing for plowing to conserve soil moisture, and it cuts down soil and crop losses from erosion.

The result for the Hayes family farm and for many others is that the current hot, dry spell has presented challenges -- but not a disaster for the farmer.

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