WASHINGTON — Wheat flour production by U.S. flour mills in 2018 totaled a record 426,871,000 cwts, up 472,000 cwts, or 0.1%, from the previous high of 426,399,000 in 2017, according to data issued March 1 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cheer from the new peak was diminished by a weak fourth quarter and perilously low mill operating rates.

The summary for 2018 was released one month later than originally announced by NASS, delayed by the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22, 2018, and continued through Jan. 25.

While reaching new records, flour production growth in recent years has been anything but robust. The 2018 figure was up only 0.5% from indicated production in 2014 (pre-NASS data) of 424,950,000 cwts, suggesting that a generally flat trend in U.S. flour production remains in place. Indeed, it has now been six years since the annual flour production change was greater than 1%.

To date, flour production in 17 years has topped 400 million cwts. The first was in 1997 at 404,143,000 cwts. The last year’s output below that figure was in 2005 at 394,973,000 cwts.

NASS beginning with July-September 2014 began (18 quarters) collecting flour milling data that for decades had been gathered and published by the Bureau of the Census of the Department of Commerce. When the Census Bureau stopped after the April-June 2011 quarter, the North American Millers’ Association commissioned Veris Consulting to gather selected milling industry data based on production of the largest milling companies. The figures were extrapolated by Milling & Baking News to estimate total U.S. flour production in a way that was comparable to Census figures. The arrangement continued into 2014, and NASS data for July-December 2014 overlapped NAMA numbers. The resulting data proved to be reasonably close to the extrapolated NAMA figures. Nevertheless, data gathered during the NAMA period are not strictly comparable to the NASS figures.

The 24-hour capacity of U.S. flour mills for the fourth quarter was estimated at a record 1,650,000 cwts, up from 1,643,000 in the third quarter and from 1,620,000 a year ago. It was 1,618,000 for all of 2016.

Based on the NASS data, mills operated at an average of 84.6% of six-day capacity in 2018, down from 86.1% in the prior year. Flour mills operated at an average of 85.1% in 2016 and 85.6% in 2015. It was the lowest since 84.2% in 2001.

The percentages reflect 307 working days in 2018, 306 working days in 2017 (a year that began and ended on Sunday), 308 in 2016 (leap year) and 307 in 2015. It was 90.3% in 2000, the last time it exceeded 90%. The annual figures were calculated using an average quarterly operating rate published by NASS.

Based on the more conventional annual operating rate calculation using fourth-quarter capacity alone, 2018 grind was 84.3%, down from 86% in 2017. This figure was the lowest for a fourth-quarter in decades (at least since 1984).

Wheat grind in 2018 totaled 918,373,000 bus, up 0.1% from 917,816,000 in 2017. The high was 944,868,000 bus in 2000.

Rate of extraction in 2018 averaged 77.5%, unchanged from 2017, against 77.2% in 2016 and 76.7% in 2015.

Millfeed production in 2018 aggregated 6,458,017 tons, a gain of 0.2% over 6,447,274 in 2017. The record was 7,374,115 in 2000.

NASS also estimated 2018 semolina output at 31,951,000 cwts, up 0.5% over 31,799,000 in 2017. Production fell well short of 32,930,000 cwts in 2011 as interpolated by Milling & Baking News but also was smaller than 32,747,000 cwts in 2010 and 32,804,000 in 2007 when the Census still issued annual data. Consequently, flour production ex semolina in 2018 was estimated at a record 394,920,000 cwts, up 0.1% from 394,600,000 in 2017.

Durum grind in 2018 aggregated 67,086,000 bus, up 1.1% over 66,374,000 in 2017. It was 66,745,000 bus in 2016.

Rye flour production in 2018 aggregated 880,000 cwts, down slightly from 883,000 in 2017. It was 1,041,000 in 2016 and 1,008,000 in 2015, according to NASS. Rye grind in 2018 totaled 1,827,000 bus, against 1,801,000 in 2017, 2,149,000 in 2016 and 2,133,000 bus in 2015.

Fourth-quarter flour output in 2018 totaled 107,718,000 cwts, down 0.5% from 108,237,000 in the third and down 1% from 108,834,000 a year ago. Mills operated at 84.8% of capacity in the fourth quarter, down from 86.7% in the third and 88.4% a year ago. Record production in the fourth quarter was 110,332,000 cwts in 2013.

The 24-hour capacity of U.S. flour mills for the fourth quarter of 2018 was placed at a new high of 1,650,000 cwts, up from 1,643,000 in the third quarter and 1,620,000 a year ago. It was up from 1,621,000 cwts in April-June 2015, the record through 2017.

According to NASS, wheat grind by U.S. mills in October-December totaled 231,661,000 bus, down 1.5% from 235,086,000 bus in the fourth quarter of 2017. It was also down 0.5% from 232,938,000 in the third quarter. The record was 247,738,000 bus in the fourth quarter of 2000.

Extraction in the fourth quarter was 77.5%, up from 77.4% in the third quarter and 77.2% a year ago.

Millfeed production in the fourth quarter totaled 1,628,348 tons, down 0.8% from 1,641,094 a year back. It was up slightly from 1,628,236 tons in July-September. The record was 1,947,407 tons in October-December 2000.

Semolina output in the fourth quarter aggregated 8,300,000 cwts, down 1.1% from 8,389,000 a year ago. It was up 5.4% over 7,877,000 in the third quarter. Durum grind in October-December totaled 17,538,000 bus, against 17,421,000 a year ago, up 0.7%. It moved up 5.2% over 16,677,000 bus in the third quarter.

Rye production in October-December totaled 210,000 cwts, which was down 2.5% from 240,000 in October-December 2017. It was down slightly from 211,000 in the third quarter. Rye grind in the fourth quarter aggregated 436,000 bus, against 444,000 in the third quarter and 495,000 a year ago.

Among states and state groupings NASS showed Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin in first place in flour production, with output total of 42,459,000 cwts in 2018, up 4.1% from 40,801,000 cwts in 2017. Its fourth-quarter 24-hour capacity was 146,452 cwts, up 4,000 from the prior year. The regional operating rate averaged 94.6% of capacity in 2018, up from 93.7% in 2017.

In second place was Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, which produced a total of 31,736,000 cwts, down 1.2% from 32,135,000 in the prior year, with capacity at 133,787 cwts and grind averaging 77.3% against 79.8% in 2017.

California was the single state leader and ranked third, turning out 31,382,000 cwts, gaining 0.7% over 31,160,000 in 2017. Its daily capacity was 122,171 cwts and grind rate was 83.7% against 84.4%.

Kansas placed at fourth (fifth a year ago and sixth two years ago) in wheat flour output among states and state groupings — but for many decades the U.S. leader. Kansas production was 28,122,000 cwts, against 27,371,000, capacity 117,132 cwts and grind 78.2% against 77.1%.

Advancing significantly in ranking, North Dakota was fifth producing 27,173,000 cwts against 25,287,000 in 2017. Capacity was 93,500 and rate of grind 94.7%.

Minnesota was sixth at 26,729,000 cwts, against 27,917,000, capacity, 120,220, and rate of grind, 72.4%.

Following next was New Jersey and New York at 25,690,000 cwts; Ohio, 24,089,000; Missouri, 24,001,000; Pennsylvania, 23,170,000; and Texas, 22,812,000.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina state grouping was at 17,668,000 cwts; Kentucky and Tennessee, 16,046,000; Iowa and Nebraska, 14,919,000; North Carolina, 14,491,000; Colorado and Oklahoma, 12,901,000; Maryland and Virginia, 12,429,000; and Michigan, 11,427,000.

All other states are Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine and Louisiana. Their output in 2018 aggregated 19,627,000 cwts, against 20,218,000 in 2017. Capacity was 69,807 and grind was 91.6%, down from 94%.

U.S aggregate capacity in the fourth quarter totaled 1,650,331 cwts (rounded elsewhere in the report) up 30,730 from 1,619,601 a year ago. Other states were down 500 cwts.

Minnesota gained 5,100 cwts; Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, 4,000; Maryland and Virginia, 3,000; Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, 2,247; California, 1,500; Kansas, 1,100; North Dakota, 1,000 and Michigan, 500. Missouri was down 3,385; Pennsylvania was down 2,600 and Iowa and Nebraska were down 932. Other states and groupings were unchanged.

NASS indicated a modest revision for the third quarter. The only change was the July-September total, up 14,000 cwts to 108,237,000 cwts.

NASS made significant changes in October-December 2018 capacity data as compared to a year ago. A similar report issued Feb. 1, 2017, made no changes.

Additional revisions may yet be anticipated in the summary to be released along with the first quarter of 2019.