U.S. winter wheat growers assess recent frost damage

Temperatures below -7 C | Damage won’t be known until the weather warms up

A struggling U.S. winter wheat crop suffered what could be a serious blow last week when temperatures dropped below freezing for long stretches twice in 48 hours in large portions of the southern plains.

“There’s a pretty widespread area where plants look really bad right now because of that freeze event,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

The damage is most severe in places like western Kansas where the crop was already stressed due to a prolonged winter drought.

Gilpin said crops were frozen in Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle by temperatures that dropped below -7 C in some areas.

“Certainly we lost some wheat and lost bushels,” he said.

Although it is early to be attaching a number to the combined drought and freeze damage, Gilpin wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. hard red winter wheat crop ends up 25 percent smaller than last year’s 27.3 million tonne harvest.

“We’re certainly looking at production down year-on-year,” he said.

The USDA said that as of April 14 the Kansas winter wheat crop was 33 percent poor to very poor, 37 percent fair and 30 percent good to excellent.

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The week before the poor to very poor percentage was 31, fair was 38 and good to excellent was 31.

The Oklahoma poor to very poor rating rose to 37 percent from 33 percent the week before.

Wheat has a legendary ability to recover from setbacks but the recent freeze event appears to have “used up the ninth life,” said Gilpin.

The crop had recently emerged from dormancy when the freeze event started on April 9.

Most of the crop hadn’t reached the jointing stage of development yet but a lot of the wheat fields in western Kansas, which is home to about half of the state’s wheat, were already reeling from drought stress.

“We’re anticipating a higher percent of abandonment in those areas. Crop adjusters are going to be busy heading out to those areas this week trying to get a handle on it.”

He spoke to a grower from southwestern Kansas who predicts he will be harvesting about one-quarter of the wheat that he planted. Gilpin said those kinds of stories are going to be commonplace.

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Kansas wheat gained about 50 cents a bushel last week primarily due to the freeze. But the market doesn’t appear to be overly excited by the freeze damage, possibly because the extent of it is still unknown.

“The market is really focused on corn and soybeans right now,” said Gilpin.

“With the U.S. having a somewhat comfortable carryout position in wheat already, maybe the market is thinking (it) can absorb the lower production in the U.S.”

The USDA delivers its first winter wheat production forecast on May 10. That number should take the freeze damage into account.

In the meantime, growers will be monitoring their crops. The full extent of the damage won’t be known until the weather heats up and the plants start growing again.

“(Then) we’ll find exactly how many of those plants really are dead,” said Gilpin.

“It’s kind of depressing. I’d rather be doing a story about how good the conditions look. Maybe next year.”

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