Wheat struggles in inclement weather across United States, Russia

by Drew Lerner
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A very large cold airmass pushed through North America in the middle part of November bringing arctic air into the U.S. Plains and Midwest while wheat was still being planted and emerging. Temperatures were cold enough to stop crop development, and there was enough cold in some locations to raise winterkill potentials while the biggest concern was over the lack of emergence and poor establishment. A similar situation occurred because of dryness in parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, while Australia’s production was cut by dryness and frost.

The autumn season in the Northern Hemisphere started out looking good with timely rainfall in the U.S. Plains and Midwest, as well as parts of the former Soviet Union. Conditions in both regions deteriorated this autumn, and all of sudden what looked like a favorable production year suddenly has turned toward one of concern.

The problems started when the rain in Ukraine, southwestern Russia and Belarus ceased during the early to middle part of autumn. Rainfall that had been timely in the early planting weeks of August and early September gradually tapered off, and many crop areas in the western Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) were not establishing well. By the time late October arrived crops were struggling, although most had emerged and still had favorable production potential if it would have rained. However, instead of raining the region turned much colder and crops were pushed into dormancy without being as well established as they needed to be to avoid crop damage during bouts of bitter cold this winter.

Cold temperatures in Ukraine and Russia probably did not come with much winterkill, but there was no snow on the ground and temperatures turned bitterly cold in some areas much earlier than usual. The cold then abated, and as warming evolved the concern over crop damage relaxed, but it still had not rained or snowed significantly as of mid-November. The lack of moisture and seasonably cool temperatures left crops in a dormant or semi-dormant state, minimizing the need for moisture, but leaving many wheat and rye crops poorly established and still vulnerable to extreme winter weather conditions.

Snow cover is imperative during the coldest times of winter this year to protect the poorly established crops from possible damage. A significant rain event was advertised for western and south-central Ukraine in the Nov. 18-20 period. Some of the moisture was expected to bring significant relief to dryness not only in those regions in Ukraine, but in neighboring Moldova and eastern Romania, which also had trended drier than usual in recent weeks. The moisture boost will shrink the large region in the western CIS suffering from dryness, but crops will not be able to respond to the moisture until spring due to their dormant or semi-dormant status.

World Weather, Inc. believes the Russia, Belarus and Ukraine crops have sufficient root systems to improve during the spring, and the production cuts because of poor establishment could be minimized. However, it is imperative that significant precipitation falls soon and that crops become deeply buried in snow to protect that potentiality. Otherwise, harsh conditions during the winter will raise the prospect of crop losses by winterkill.

Conditions in the United States seemed quite good in October. Timely rain was falling across parts of the hard red winter wheat region and temperatures were warm. The environment was supporting wheat planting, emergence and establishment — much better than in the previous year or two of drought. However, the warmer-than-usual temperatures induced quick drying between rain events, and the region never got a good soaking to last very long, and moisture was still a little low. Timely rains were still occurring right up to early November, and relief was occurring to support much improved planting, emergence and establishment conditions. But then, everything came roaring to a halt as bitter cold air moved across the Plains and Midwest.

Temperatures during a 10-day period in mid-November were 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit colder than average in parts of the Great Plains and 10 to 20 degrees below normal in the soft wheat production areas of the Midwest. Soil temperatures plummeted and brought most wheat growth to a halt. Daily high and low temperatures were colder than usual for mid-January let alone mid-November.

Snow fell across many areas in the northern Plains and upper Midwest early in the cold surge, but moisture in the atmosphere ran low when the coldest air reached hard red winter wheat country. Temperatures slipped near and below zero degrees Fahrenheit as far south as northwestern Kansas and eastern Colorado. Snow cover was not significant, and concern rose over the potential winterkill developed in the snow free areas. Some of the concern was a byproduct of the lack of snow cover, extreme temperatures near and slightly below zero, and poor winter crop established due to recent dryness. These factors combined to raise market worry about crop conditions soon after the worry about Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had reached a climax.

Winterkill may have occurred since temperatures prior to the cold surge were well above average and crops were not adequately hardened to withstand the cold.

The biggest issues may not be over winterkill in the U.S. Plains, but more because of the poor crop emergence and establishment. The cold came rushing across the Canada border and poured into the Plains and Midwest so quickly that crops had little time to harden, but were quickly pushed into a dormant or semi-dormant status. The crop froze in time — so to speak — and all development that was under way ceased. Eventually, snow covered most of the Midwest and the northern and central Plains, and the ground froze up, stopping fieldwork in many areas.

Midwest soft wheat planting had been delayed this autumn because of frequent rain stalling soybean and corn harvesting. Some of the wheat planting follows the summer crop harvest, and when the cold came along much fieldwork was incomplete and crops have not emerged and established very well. Illinois was reporting only 64% of its wheat emerged on Nov. 16 compared to a five-year average of 81%, and warming was not expected to be significant enough to raise soil temperatures favorably for emergence until the last week of November, but it is tough for temperature to be warm and stay warm from that point into the heart of winter, suggesting many wheat fields may not emerge and a few will not get planted.

Illinois was not the only state in that position of poor emergence. Missouri reported only 59% of its crop up and developing Nov. 16 compared with 69% as the average, and Michigan was 82% emergence compared with 93% as the average. Many other states in the Midwest and central Plains had at least several percentages of the 2015 crops not yet emerged and another greater percentage that was not likely established very well. That leaves U.S. crops — like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — vulnerable to winterkill this year.

These crops are not yet a write-off, and readers should be careful in interpreting the situation. Planted and not emerged fields may still come around in the spring if winter and spring conditions are just right. However, there is potential for seed rot if the ground gets too wet and warms slightly, and there is potential for winterkill if snow fails to accumulate and more bitter cold evolves. The situation is tenuous to say the least and the commodity trade believes the situation is worrisome enough to put some significant premium into the recent weeks of trade.

To make matters a little more interesting, Australia has lost production this year because of El Niño-like conditions restricting rainfall. Some of South Australia’s winter crops also were hurt because of dryness and unusual frost and freezes. In the meantime, China, India and Argentina wheat prospects still look very good, and little change was anticipated for a while. Europe is still the largest wheat producing region, and it has had a less-than-ideal autumn season, too, although most of the trouble there has been from excess moisture. The Balkan Countries were too wet during planting, recent heavy rain in northern Italy has damaged some crops. Spain, France and Germany crops are suspected of being in mostly good shape, but spring weather will be important for these areas as well as the U.S. and western CIS crop areas.
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