Record Drought Gives Oklahoma Wheat Farmers a Glimpse of the Future

  • Logan Layden

Nic McPhee / Flickr

All the recent wet weather wiped out the drought in western Oklahoma, but climate scientists say farmers in the region should get ready for more hotter, drier days in the future.

StateImpact visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno in May 2014, where Director Jean Steiner is helping farmers learn to adapt to a changing climate.

“If you work on agricultural production in the Great Plains, I think you’re going to have to have a strong climate focus at some point in time,” Steiner said, adding that Oklahoma is the perfect place to do research on the relationship between climate and crops and livestock.

And as The Oklahoman‘s Silas Allen reports, scientists turned the four-year drought into an opportunity to study what the future might be like for the state’s wheat farmers:

The upside, if there is one, is that it’s also given state wheat researchers a glimpse of the kinds of conditions climate change could bring to Oklahoma.

… Researchers are working to develop strains of wheat that would be better able to cope with conditions that scientists predict the state could see by mid-century.

Oklahoma State University professor Brett Carver focuses on wheat breeding and genetics. He told the paper his team is trying to get wheat plants to produce more grain in a shorter period of time.

Carver and his team are working to develop strains of wheat that would produce grain late enough in the season that they wouldn’t be vulnerable to late-season freezes, but early enough that they reach maturity by early June, before the summer heat begins.

…Vara Prasad, a professor of crop ecophysiology at Kansas State University, said rising temperatures shorten the window of time that wheat plants have to mature. That means plants have less time to produce grain, resulting in less grain per plant, he said.

Allen reports it could be another decade before these drought and freeze resistant strains of wheat hit the market. Months like May 2015 — the wettest month in Oklahoma history — do give researchers, and farmers, more time to adapt.