KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Kansas farmer Larry Kepley is almost out of hope.
After drought left the veteran wheat farmer with what he called the "worst wheat harvest" he's ever known, the odds for next year's crop are looking just as grim.
Sun-baked fields are as hard as rock, and moisture levels deep into the soil are nearly nonexistent as drought persists throughout much of the U.S. southern Plains.
"We're always saying next year it will be better, but it doesn't look very hopeful at this point," said Kepley, who grows wheat in the far southwestern part of Kansas, one of the nation's top winter wheat states.
It is still early, much too soon, to gauge prospects for what will be the 2012 winter wheat crop. Farmers are still counting their bushels from this summer's harvest, and collecting on insurance payments for fields that failed to deliver.
But planting season is rapidly approaching, and farmers have to figure out how much seed to plant, how much to spend on inputs like fertilizer, and how best to cover their risk. And with soils so dry and last year's harvest a disappointment for many, prospects for a bountiful 2012 harvest are in jeopardy.
Some farmers like to get their fields planted in early September, and hope for sprouting of young green wheat that hungry cattle can graze. Hay is in short supply throughout the country and ranchers desperately need the forage early wheat can provide for their animals.
Whether for grain or for forage, most look for late-September to mid-October seeding. But for all, soil moisture is critical. And this year, there just is not very much of it.
"We've had some recent rain, but it hasn't been very much and it by no means has erased the deficits of moisture that are ongoing," said Kansas state climatologist Mary Knapp.
Adequate moisture is critical for seeds to sprout and for root systems to develop; important growing areas in Kansas and southward into Oklahoma and Texas are severely lacking.
"We need some type of tropical storm. It probably would have to be a major hurricane," said Mark Hodges, executive director of Plains Grains Inc, a crop marketing organization representing farmers throughout the Plains.
Traders in wheat futures are keeping a close eye on the situation.
"It is an issue that is simmering," said Newedge analyst Dan Cekander. "Everybody sees what happened this year. Obviously there is still time to get rain. But when you get into September, it will get more serious."
Pessimism over what will be harvested next summer follows a sharply disappointing harvest this summer.
Kepley's fields, for instance, averaged only about 4 bushels an acre, a far cry from a more typical 30 to 40 bushels per acre for winter wheat farmers.
The crop that was harvested this summer bore the brunt of the brutal drought that sent scorching temperatures and long stretches without rain to the Plains and southern states.
Texas was the worst hit. The first seven months of the year were the driest ever recorded in the Lone Star State. Total accumulation of rainfall was but a fraction of what is normal and, more important, needed.
Typically a healthy wheat plant will use 20 inches of moisture through the course of a growing season. Though the roots of a wheat plant usually extend down two feet, they can stretch four feet into the ground to draw the nutrients the plant needs.
"If you don't have the moisture early, you will not get seed germination or emergence," said Hodges. "While there is not an early high water demand, it is also very critical there be enough."
North-central Texas, for example, on average gets more than 35 inches of rainfall for the first seven months of the year. This year, however, that total was less than 4-1/2 inches.
And some areas of the state haven't had a drop all year.
Levels of "extreme" and "exceptional" drought cover more than 94 percent of Texas, according to a report issued last Thursday by a coalition of U.S. climatologists.
Oklahoma similarly is suffering, with extreme and exceptional drought now spread through 93 percent of that state.
Drought has taken a toll.
Texas this summer harvested only 52 million bushels, down from 127.5 million in 2010. Oklahoma harvested 74.8 million bushels, down from 129 million. Kansas, the top winter wheat-producing state, harvested 273 million bushels, down from 360 million, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It has just been horrible this year," said Brenda Sidwell, a crop insurance agent in Oklahoma. "Farmers don't know what to do. They are just at a loss. It is so dry. They are trying to figure out what they are going to do, how much seed to plant, whether or not to fertilize. It is just a challenge."
Sidwell said that after heavy losses suffered by many farmers this year, some were looking at going light on fertilizer and seed this planting season, which could limit the potential of next year's crop.
And some were looking at a new type of insurance policy that safeguards farmers against weather like drought. Farmers can collect if rainfall in their area is less than a specified accumulation.
Regardless of whether they get the rain they need or not, most farmers plan to plant anyway. Farmers can "dust in" their seed, pushing seeds in to dry soils and then hoping and waiting for the moisture to follow. The strategy may not give them a crop but it is necessary if they are to collect insurance.
And the whims of weather patterns can always change.
"We hope we get the moisture we need," said Kepley. "But we'll put some wheat in the ground one way or the other."
Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by John Picinich