Spring rain vital for struggling U.S. winter wheat crop

The U.S. winter wheat crop is struggling, and there is no relief in sight.

In Kansas, only 14 percent of the crop was rated in good to excellent condition as of Jan. 29, down from 51 percent at the end of November.

Oklahoma was worse with four percent in the good to excellent categories.

The main problem is the dryness. Almost half of the hard red winter wheat belt has received less than 25 percent of normal precipitation over the past three months.

In Kansas, 79 percent of the topsoil moisture supplies and 70 percent of subsoil supplies were rated short to very short.

Oklahoma was in worse shape with 93 percent of both the topsoil and subsoil supplies in those two categories.

Bruce Burnett, director of markets and weather with MarketsFarm, said wheat crops have an uncanny ability to rebound, so he will wait until spring to draw conclusions about the fate of the crop.

“There is risk to this crop if the spring rains don’t arrive,” he said.

“By the time we hit mid-March, if we haven’t seen much precipitation, then all sorts of red flags will be up.”

History shows the dry conditions in the southern Plains could well persist through spring.

Commodity Weather Group (CWG) has studied seven years with similar conditions where it was dry in the southern Plains in the winter and there was a weak to moderate La Nina — 2014, 2011, 2006, 1996, 1986, 1981 and 1963 — and the trend was for the winter dryness to linger.

“The Plains stayed on the drier side and the heat was also focused over the Plains in the spring as well,” said CWG president Matt Rogers.

“That could continue to create problems for the Plains’ hard red winter wheat.”

A prolonged spring drought would inflict serious damage on a U.S. winter wheat crop that is already struggling, said Burnett.

Crop establishment was poor in the southern portion of the wheat belt, making the crop susceptible to winterkill.

The crop hasn’t broken dormancy, but recent warm temperatures caused it to lose some of its winter hardiness, which means a cold snap in the next few weeks could do damage.

Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist with INTL FCStone, said there were winterkill conditions on Jan. 1, but it’s too early to say how much damage that caused.

He believes yields will be 10 to 20 percent below trend if rain doesn’t come before crop heading.

That is on top of having the second smallest winter wheat crop on record. Growers planted 32.6 million acres, down less than one percent from last year and 10 percent from 2016.

Even with a small winter wheat harvest, the U.S. would still have ample total wheat supplies.

“What it does do is tighten the supplies of quality milling wheat,” said Suderman.

Burnett said a production drop of 10 to 15 percent could lift wheat prices on the North American commodity exchanges but not the world price because of the global glut.

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