KANSAS CITY — Spring wheat producers were hobbled by a wet spring that delayed seeding and stretched the process in some cases into mid-June. Now, intermittent rainstorms and elevated humidity have hindered timely combining and, as a result, the 2019 spring wheat harvest significantly lags the average pace for the date.
Spring wheat country “had a bit of a later planting season, but if you compare it with last year, also a late planting season, at this time in 2018 we had half the crop harvested,” said Erica Olson, market development and research manager with the North Dakota Wheat Commission. “These past few weeks, the wet conditions we’ve had made it difficult to get the crop to dry down.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated in its weekly Crop Progress report issued Aug. 19 that the spring wheat harvest in the six primary production states was 16% completed by Aug. 18 compared with 8% a week earlier, 56% a year ago and 49% as the recent five-year average for the date. Combining was 12% completed in North Dakota (43% as the five-year average for the date), 27% in South Dakota (75%), 14% in Minnesota (55%), 20% in Montana (44%), 27% in Idaho (47%) and 25% in Washington (64%).
Standing out among spring wheat states was South Dakota, where harvesting was 62 percentage points behind progress a year earlier. A snowy winter coupled with a wet spring forced many rivers and tributaries out of their banks, damaging infrastructure and equipment and leaving fields saturated and muddy.
“South Dakota bore the brunt of the issues this spring,” Ms. Olson said. “They were very wet, many areas had flooding, so a lot of the crop was planted very, very late, and some wasn’t planted at all. And recently, similar to North Dakota, the weather hasn’t been cooperating.”
Some spring wheat remained green with elevated levels of moisture into mid-August. But the crop was mostly in good shape. The U.S.D.A., in its latest crop condition update, rated the 2019 spring wheat crop 12% excellent, 58% good, 23% fair, 6% poor and 1% very poor. Minnesota wheat at 83% good to excellent was seen in the best condition, while the Montana crop had the lowest good-to-excellent rating at 61%.
Condition ratings are below last year, but not significantly. While many areas were too wet during the planting and growing seasons, other areas were too dry, stressing the crop there and eating into yield potential. Disease and weed pressures were elevated in the wettest planted areas, although not to an exorbitant degree. Producers have been more vigilant in monitoring those pressures and combatted them with regular fungicide applications.
Most of the spring wheat crop has matured, which allowed producers to initiate harvest. But the progress has been slow thanks to frequent, but mostly short-lived, rain showers.
“Producers that are combining might get half a day in or a few hours, and it might rain a little bit, and then the moisture is up again, and they have to wait it out,” Ms. Olson said. “It’s been a lot of stop and go, and pretty slow progression.”
The good news is that the region’s soil moisture profiles aren’t as saturated as they were in the spring, so light rains haven’t muddied fields to the point of inaccessibility.
“These aren’t torrential rains, so they’re not affecting the ability to get into the fields,” Ms. Olson said. “We’ve seen that before, where the soil is so saturated you can’t get equipment in. So luckily, we’re not facing that issue, it’s just the issue of the grain drying down after those rains.”
The length of fieldwork delays were driven by rainfall amounts. A half-inch of rain may be sufficiently absorbed to allow machinery back into fields, whereas a full inch could generate a delay of several days.
“I haven’t heard anybody saying that it’s wet enough that they would get stuck in the mud,” a veteran analyst said.
In light of harvest delays, too few samples have entered labs to allow analysts to identify trends in 2019 spring wheat quality. But the North Dakota Wheat Commission said in its Aug. 20 crop progress update that initial reports from the state’s producers were that yields were equal to or below 2018 averages and protein levels mostly ranged from 13% to 15%.
The North Dakota durum harvest was about 7% completed by Aug. 20, the commission said, well behind 31% as the progress a year earlier, due to rain delays and humidity complications. The state’s durum crop condition dropped slightly in the latest week to 72% good to excellent. Montana durum was 12% harvested compared with 32% as the average pace.
The durum crop progress was pegged at a full two weeks behind normal pace, said the commodities analyst who scouted fields during the Wheat Quality Council’s 2019 spring wheat tour. The durum crop appeared to be thriving during that late-July tour, and earliest tested samples indicated good yields and coloring. But recent rain events have washed out some fields, “and the wheat as well is losing some of its wonderful color,” she said.
Harvest pace “is a bit frustrating right now, but if we do get some good weather, the moisture goes down, with the technology today, the producers can get a lot done in a short amount of time,” Ms. Olson said. “I don’t think anyone is hitting the panic button yet, but it’s just more frustration at this point.”
Meanwhile, the 2019 winter wheat harvest is nearing conclusion. Most of the wheat remaining in fields was in the northern Plains, in the case of hard red winter wheat, and for soft red winter wheat, Michigan.
The U.S.D.A. indicated the hard red winter wheat harvest was completed in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas by Aug. 18 and 97% completed in Colorado (compared with 100% as the recent five-year average for the date), 96% in Nebraska (100%), 76% in South Dakota (95%) and 69% in Montana (91%).