Black Soil Field’s Yield Returns To Average After Drought

After enduring a season as hard as any in living memory, the farmers who cultivate these Black Soils wheat fields say their yields should recover to normal after massive drought losses last year.

The winter wheat, to be harvested in July, was planted in nearly dry soil but the rains came just in time, said the head of technology at the farm’s operator, Russian House holding company, Sergei Alipov. But his problems did not end there.

“The temperature at cultivation depth was zero and respiration continued all winter, so the plants used up all their sugar. When the temperature finally fell in February, the snow cover was too low, and the plants were hurt by frosts,” Alipov said.

That was followed by a cool spring of little to no rain.

“It has been exceptionally hard. In all my 20 years of farming there has never been such a year,” Alipov said.

Alipov, standing in a field of thigh-high wheat turning from bluish green to gold, counted the kernels in one head of wheat: 40-45 per head, above average in number but slightly undersized.

The plants are less than half the normal height for their variety due to lack of moisture.

“We fought disease, we fought pests,” Alipov said. “Even though the wheat is stunted … and the stems are 50 centimetres when they should be 1.2 metres, the ear is well formed.”

The yield from this field, he said, will be about four tonnes per hectare, in line with multi-year averages, after just 3.1 tonnes last year in the drought, which destroyed a third of Russia’s total crop and prompted the state to ban exports.

Exports were due to reopen July 1.

Russian House, that trades with global names such as Louis Dreyfus and Cargill, loads wheat from these fields onto rail cars bound for Novorossiisk at its old but immaculate elevator complex in nearby Shchigry. No export loadings are scheduled yet.

The field in Lezhenki, about 60 km east of the provincial capital of Kursk and half a day’s drive southwest of Moscow, is in one of the holding’s eight farms, which have a total of 40,000 hectares under cultivation.

After last year’s disaster, Alipov and the farm manager took action early in the season to preserve soil moisture, cultivating to a shallow depth and piling on organic material to prevent evaporation.

They are also counting on plantings of higher-yielding maize to boost their overall harvest.

“What we don’t get in wheat we’ll make up in maize,” Alipov said.

Situated on a hilltop and exposed to the wind, the field is one of the area’s most drought prone, Alipov said. Recently, the soil was fine and dry as dust, and the ground riven with deep cracks from last year’s drought.

The Lezhenki farm, however, is not in a risk zone this year, Anna Strashnaya, the head of the agricultural forecasts department at Russia’s Federal Hydrometeorology and Environment Monitoring Service (Rosgidromet), said.

This year has so far been kinder than last, when weather conditions in April and May set the stage for severe losses when a July heat wave hit key growing regions, especially in along the Volga River Valley to the east.

But while rain has been scarce again this year, temperatures have also been lower, Alipov and Strashnaya said.

“A repeat of last year’s drought should not be expected,” Strashnaya said.

Conditions vary widely in Russia this year, even within producing regions, however.

“It literally varies from farm to farm,” said Richard Warburton, the chief executive of Stockholmlisted Black Earth Farming, which owns more than 300,000 hectares of Russian farmland, mostly in the Central Black Soil region.

As they did in the autumn, the rain may come to Lezhenki just in time to give yields a final boost, with just a few weeks left before the harvest. The Kursk region expected to see rain soon.

“We are hoping that the forecasts for rain are right,” Alipov said, “and that the wheat will be high quality, with a high gluten content.”

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