Faced with unappealing prices for most major crops, farmers in the southern U.S. Plains are struggling with what to plant this year.
The region, stretching from Texas to Nebraska, is traditionally one of the world's leading producers of wheat and cattle.
Many growers already cut back on winter wheat acres, which were seeded last autumn for harvest this summer. The biggest declines were in the Plains. The U.S. Agriculture Department said farmers in Oklahoma planted fewer than 5 million acres of wheat for the first time since 1964.
"A lot of guys, myself included, cannot figure out, if they do have some fallow acres, how they are going to make this work," said Clint Wilcox, a farmer and crop insurance agent in Fairview, Oklahoma.
Nebraska farmers planted the fewest winter wheat acres on record, and plantings in top producers Kansas and Texas fell by 700,000 acres each.
What happens to that land is still up in the air, more so than usual.
"I don't believe I've ever seen a year that farmers are as indecisive on acres as they are right now," said Wayne Cleveland, executive director of the Texas Sorghum Producers, a trade group.
The USDA's Jan. 12 winter wheat plantings figure of 36.6 million acres shocked analysts who expected a number closer to 39 million.
Low prices encouraged some farmers to scale back on wheat and instead hold out for a spring-planted crop. Cash prices for wheat are currently below $4 a bushel in parts of Oklahoma, while farmers need about $5 to cover costs.
"I can see where producers might be less than excited about putting something in the ground that's well below a break-even price right now," said Mark Hodges of Plains Grains, a wheat industry group.
Choices for spring crops in the Southern Plains could include soybeans, corn, sorghum, canola or cotton, but projected returns are not much better.
"None of the crop alternatives are exceptionally good. So a few of those acres may sit fallow," said Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the National Sorghum Producers.
Wilcox predicted growers will not finalize decisions until planting in the Plains begins in March. Some may hold out until April or May to gauge whether they have enough soil moisture to plant sorghum.
"If the price is attractive and they have a full profile of soil moisture, there will probably be a lot of grain sorghum growing. But that would have to be assessed at that time," Hodges said.
Not the final word
To be sure, not all of the drop in winter wheat plantings was due to low prices. Rains last autumn helped break a long-term drought in the Southern Plains but also stalled wheat planting progress. An expansion in sorghum acreage in the Plains in 2015 played a role, as some sorghum acres were harvested too late to allow for wheat planting.
The USDA's January figures will not be the final word. The government will release updated acreage estimates on March 31, along with planting projections for all major crops.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma's winter wheat crop is off to its best start in years, aided by ample moisture. The USDA rated 77 percent of the state's wheat as good to excellent at the end of December.
Consequently, said Mike Schulte of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, farmers are poised to harvest a larger percentage of their planted acres than in recent years, when drought forced them to abandon some fields.
"Even if planted acres are down," Schulte said, "based on way things look in field today, it may not be that big a loss of acres harvested."
However, the Plains is also cattle country, and some expect to see a higher-than-normal percentage of wheat used purely as grazing pasture for cattle. Said Wilcox: "They are selling pounds of beef instead of bushels of wheat."