Normal spring weather critical to winter wheat rebound, March 8, 2011
by Jay Sjerven

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KANSAS CITY — The assertion that spring and not winter weather exerts greater sway in determining yields and fates of winter wheat crops will receive quite a test this season with the hard winter wheat crop of the Southwest expected to emerge from dormancy with some of the lowest condition ratings in years.

The transition from dormancy comes at a time when wheat prices, while off significantly from recent highs, remain far above historical averages. The varied potential outcomes for the crop could translate into wildly differing paths for wheat markets in the weeks and months ahead.

Drought conditions across western sections of the hard winter wheat belt prevented the crop there from being well established before the onset of winter. The winter itself has been harsh. While eastern areas of the hard winter belt received adequate or even above average precipitation during the past several weeks, western areas were skipped over by most snowstorms, which often left fields there bare or nearly so during all-too-frequent incursions of arctic air. The result was steadily deteriorating crop condition ratings in some key states.

At the same time, one southwestern miller observed “the trade has areas of concerns but no areas of panic,” pointing out while yields may prove to be lower than average and abandonment higher than average in the western hard winter wheat belt, normal spring weather would go a long way toward assuring an adequate even if not a great crop overall.

Kansas vies with North Dakota each year for the title of the nation’s leading wheat-producing state. It is by far the largest winter wheat producer. In 2010, Kansas turned out nearly 353 million bus of hard red winter wheat, which accounted for 62% of the nation’s hard red winter wheat crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Kansas field office rated the condition of the state’s hard winter wheat crop at the end of February at 25% good to excellent, 35% fair and 40% poor to very poor. In contrast, the state’s crop was rated 37% good to excellent, 38% fair and 25% poor to very poor at the end of November (the U.S.D.A. published its final composite winter wheat ratings of 2010 on Nov. 29).

The U.S.D.A.’s Kansas field office said, “The western counties continue to be very dry, receiving only limited moisture during February, while the eastern counties received rain and snow totals that were above average.”

Colorado didn’t update its winter wheat conditions at the end of February, but the U.S.D.A. said of that state, “The winter wheat growing areas experienced mainly dry conditions with limited snowfall during the month, and the crop remains in mostly poor to fair condition.”

Conditions weren’t better across the southern Plains. The U.S.D.A.’s Oklahoma field office reported wheat condition ratings in that state declined in February and stated, “Despite the heavy snowfall, the precipitation levels across the state are still well below normal with most of the state experiencing drought conditions. There is some concern about freeze damage in small grains, but the extent is not yet known.” The Oklahoma winter wheat crop was rated 19% good to excellent, 39% fair and 42% poor to very poor at the end of February compared with 44% good to excellent, 48% fair and 8% poor to very poor at the end of November.

Texas winter wheat condition at the end of February was rated 18% good to excellent, 26% fair and 56% poor to very poor compared with 36% good to excellent, 38% fair and 26% poor to very poor at the end of November. The U.S.D.A.’s Texas field office said the crop at the end of February “showed signs of stress due to the earlier freezes and recent dry conditions.”

The Nebraska wheat condition at the end of February was rated 40% good to excellent, 47% fair and 13% poor to very poor compared with 45% good to excellent, 44% fair and 11% poor to very poor in November.

The South Dakota wheat crop was rated 49% good to excellent, 49% fair and 2% poor at the end of February compared with 70% good to excellent, 28% fair and 2% poor in November. Adequate snow cover through most of February protected the crop from a greater rating decline.

In contrast, the Montana hard winter crop fared well through the winter. The U.S.D.A. field office in Montana rated that state’s February wheat condition as 71% good to excellent, 25% fair and 4% poor compared with 74% good to excellent, 23% fair and 3% poor in November. The crop in Montana benefited from snow cover, and topsoil moisture in the state was rated 92% adequate to surplus.

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