A sprouting force is cheating Adams County farmers of their winter wheat crop.
Because of abundant cheat grass, the growers are tearing up entire rolling hills covered with the tender shoots of September plantings.
Though it’s an annual problem for farmers, this year the wind and weather have combined to make the weed uncommonly prolific.
Farmers across Adams County like Harold Clinesmith have already plowed under a number of their fields, losing $7 to $10 of seed an acre.
“This year it was extra bad because we had an earlier rain and also earlier seeding,” said Clinesmith, who has grown grain in Adams County for more than 50 years. “It’s bad, but it’s not quite bad enough to do a total eradication (of the winter wheat crop).”
Clinesmith first noticed the weed among his wheat early in September. He expected to see cheat grass after heavy rains interrupted his planting. “Cheat likes dark and cold and wet to germinate,” he said. “You can find it within three or four days of an early rain.”
If a farmer plants early enough, his wheat gets a head start on the cheat grass and can usually choke it out. But if the rains come early, like they did this year, the two grasses compete and the potential wheat yield drops.
Clinesmith is not alone. His neighbors’ fields all face the same threat.
“It’s pretty bad in Adams County,” said Chris Holt, Adams County executive director for the Farm Service Agency. He wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how wide-spread the cheat grass is, but did say this year’s infestation is worse than most.
Cheat grass, also known as Bromus Tectorum or downy brome, is indigenous to the Mediterranean and probably came to the United States in the 1800s as packing material. It was first spotted in Washington near Ritzville in 1893. By 1930 it was found throughout the state.
“It’s everywhere,” said Diana Roberts, agronomist for the Washington State University Spokane extension office. “It’s along roads and in ditches and fields.”
To battle the cheat grass, some Adams County farmers have dug up entire fields and will wait until spring to replant the crop, Holt said.
That may be a detriment because yields from spring plantings tend to be only 60 to 70 percent of wheat planted in the fall.
Winter wheat usually takes root in late August or early September and waits through the cold months insulated by snow, Roberts said. “But a weedy winter crop could also reduce the yield up to 30 percent. So it’s a toss up.”
Other growers are spraying chemicals on the cheat grass in hopes of keeping their winter wheat seedlings, but the job is a costly one.
“You may not be able to afford to do what you need to do,” Clinesmith said. “But then again, you may not be able to afford not to do it.”
Clinesmith is lucky. While he did have to tear up a portion of his winter wheat, he had enough time to get a new batch in.
“It will be OK,” he said. “It’s a little smaller and it will be a little more tender, but it should be OK.”