Spring 2017 will help heal U.S. hard red wheat woes

by Drew Lerner
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Spring 2017 weather

KANSAS CITY — An unusually dry autumn continues in the west-central high Plains region of the United States, impacting unirrigated wheat production areas with limited soil moisture. Crops that were planted early and established favorably have not seen much moisture in several weeks.

The situation is a growing concern for farmers and some of the commodity trade because of deteriorating conditions for some of the crop. The bigger concern is not for the early planted crop, but for the crop planted more recently, or that which is still waiting to be planted. Some of the late crop may not get significant precipitation before plant dormancy evolves, and that may leave a part of this year’s wheat poorly established and vulnerable to winterkill.

Most of the U.S. Department of Agriculture crop progress numbers are very good for wheat throughout the central and southwestern Plains. Planting and emergence have gone well, but evidence of the limited soil moisture is most obvious in the crop condition ratings. Crops rated in poor or very poor condition reached 14% in Colorado, 10% in Kansas, 12% in Nebraska, 9% in Oklahoma and 15% for Texas November 13. Those figures could still deteriorate further and that is what has the industry a little nervous. Hard red winter wheat production from the United States is important to many food companies, and ongoing trouble in the central Plains may impact the bottom line for production and profit in 2017.

Several counties in western Kansas and eastern Colorado were completely dry during the 30-day period ended Nov. 14 while other areas nearby reported less than 25% of normal precipitation. Very few areas in any part of the hard red wheat production area reported much more than half of normal rainfall. However, conditions in the previous 30 days were different for some areas with central and eastern wheat areas of Kansas and Oklahoma reporting sufficient rainfall to support emergence and good stands. Rainfall for the 60-day period ended Nov. 14 was still well below half of normal in the first five tiers of counties to the east of Colorado’s border extending deeply into western Kansas. The area includes some prime wheat production acreage — some of which is irrigated and much of which may not be.

Spring 2017 weather

Similar dryness extended south through the Oklahoma border to the northern Texas Panhandle and east through much of eastern Colorado’s production area. Several counties and parts of counties were still reporting nearly dry conditions over the past two months.

Time is running out for better crop establishment this autumn. Normally, if temperatures had not been so warm this autumn winter wheat would be dormant or semi-dormant in Nebraska, much of Colorado and northwestern Kansas by now and would trend dormant in other areas in the region by the end of this month.

Unusually warm weather has bought the crop some time by extending the growing season. However, that same warmth has kept evaporation rates running high enough that further moisture losses have occurred in the soil. The drier the region becomes the less new crop development occurs and the more likely crops will not be well established when dormancy does finally arrive — at least in the drier areas.

World Weather, Inc. believes colder weather will occur without much dryness relief. Some precipitation will fall during the winter, but the most important news is the forecast for spring. That forecast suggests spring will be wetter biased and cooler biased in hard red winter wheat country. That may be a blessing for the region, especially if winter weather extremes can be kept to a minimum this year. Crop loss is possible during the winter, but if just a little moisture occurs periodically to keep the topsoil slightly moist and to bury wheat in snow when threatening cold occurs there is potential for a favorable bout of recovery in the spring. The situation will be quite tenuous, but hope is not lost. At least the majority of wheat has been planted and has emerged. Stands will be poor, thin and weak, but if conditions are just right the spring moisture may be a huge boon to the crop.  This is certainly not a time to write off the crop.

Spring 2017 weather

In the meantime, trouble in U.S. hard red winter wheat county is apparently not serious enough on its own to stimulate a big run up in futures prices. For a while this season, it looked as though there would be some bullish help from a troubled wheat crop in Australia, China and France, North Africa, Argentina and Brazil. Trouble in each of these regions in recent weeks and months seems to have been reduced very slowly and the situation has trended a little better.

Australia’s problem earlier this season was with excessive moisture and downgrading in wheat quality and yields. Some frost and freezes in Western Australia also was factored in, but recent conditions have improved. The situation in Australia may not be ideal, but pressure on the crop has eased quite a bit in recent weeks. Some loss has occurred, but a large crop is still possible.

France was in a serious drought from July through October. The situation hurt the nation’s summer crops and the lack of moisture was threatening winter crop planting, emergence and establishment. Similar to the U.S. hard red winter wheat region, France is getting its crop planted and some of it has emerged, but the crop will overwinter in less than ideal shape and will have potential to improve greatly or fail miserably. Again, like the United States, the outlook for France is promising with abundant precipitation and cool weather expected this winter.

North Africa rainfall has been erratic so far this autumn. Enough has fallen to support planting and emergence, but more rain is needed. La Niña years are not always favorable for the best rainfall distribution, and some moisture issues may evolve later in the year, but for now the situation looks more promising than it had been.

China has suffered from excessive moisture this autumn. Planting delays occurred frequently. However, there have been timely breaks in the weather. Wheat in the North China Plain rarely has a problem from surplus moisture. It is normally drought that threatens the crop. Once again, the outlook for improvement in China is liable to leave at least some potential for improved crop development later in the growing season.

Brazil’s problems mostly have been confined to Rio Grande do Sul and it does produce a fair amount of wheat. Only 15% to 20% of the crop had been harvested when torrential rain fall in October and a large decline in crop quality resulted. The early crop was harvested quickly and successfully.

Argentina wheat had to deal with dryness at planting and during establishment, excessive moisture in the spring and a few bouts of freezing conditions. Despite all of these adversities, Argentina wheat likely will finish out soon, and its production will be down, but it is unclear how significant that might be.

Wheat conditions in South Africa are better than last year and crops in the western Commonwealth of Independent States (including Ukraine and Russia) are poised to produce well. India also will have a big crop in 2017.

Adding all of the issues for wheat around the world together does not spell a crisis. As long as U.S. Plains wheat improves and there are no big losses in the remainder of the world the bottom line for production will not be a perfect year by any means, but a disastrous production year is equally unlikely.   However, it is not over until bread is on the table.

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