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U. S. crop struggles in dry soil

Crop rating lowest ever | Views differ over whether fall condition affects final winter wheat yields

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either way too early to write off the U.S. winter wheat crop or time to pull out the eraser and pencil in a smaller production number.

The crop is off to its worst start since condition ratings began in 1986. Only 33 percent of the winter wheat was rated in good to excellent condition as of Nov. 26, down from 52 percent a year ago.

But those ratings can be deceiving, said Tom Leffler, owner of Leffler Commodities in Augusta, Kansas.

“I’m not a real big believer in crop condition ratings,” he said.

Kansas typically accounts for 36 percent of the U.S. hard red winter wheat crop. The next biggest producer is Oklahoma at 12 percent.

“Kansas is more important to the winter wheat crop than what either Iowa or Illinois or Indiana by themselves are to corn and soybeans,” said Leffler.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a mere 29 percent of Kansas’s winter wheat crop is in good to excellent condition, which is below the dismal nation-wide rating.

Jim Shroyer, wheat specialist at Kansas State University, said there’s plenty of evidence to support that rating.

“The first thing I saw is poor growth of secondary roots or crown roots,” he said in an article that ran on the U.S. Wheat Associates’ website.

Crown roots take up more water and nutrients than primary roots, so they are important for the plant to survive the winter. And they help anchor the plant in the ground.

“By this point in the season there should be a much more extensive crown root system than what I found,” said Shroyer.

Leffler isn’t as concerned about the condition of the crop heading into dormancy based on what he has seen and on reports he is getting from farmers in central Kansas through central Oklahoma, which is by far the most important winter wheat growing region of the country.

“That’s probably some of the better looking wheat. Two weeks ago a lot of that area picked up an inch or better of rain. That really made a lot of difference,” he said.

Leffler said it’s not good to have too much growth heading into dormancy, so he believes the crop could be in decent condition come spring.

Informa Economics figures the poor start to the 2013-14 winter wheat crop will hurt yields.

The forecaster sees a similar sized crop as last year despite what it believes is an extra million acres that went in the ground of hard and soft wheat.

Some analysts suggest there is no correlation between crop condition at this time of year and final yields.

Neil Townsend, director of CWB Market Research, said that is malarkey. The CWB has been touring the U.S. hard red winter wheat growing areas in the first week of December for decades.

“It is our opinion that you can make some judgments on the crop as it goes into dormancy,” he said.

“We’ve been able to make some pretty good judgments on what’s going to happen. There is a correlation on the way it goes into dormancy and the final results.”

Heading into this year’s tour, CWB is forecasting that U.S. winter wheat area will be up 900,000 acres over last year but production will be down 2.7 million tonnes.

Townsend thinks the production forecast will drop further once colleague Bruce Burnett returns from his annual trip to the U.S. plains. Based on the condition reports, there has already been excessive damage to this year’s crop.

The U.S. has a huge supply of hard red winter wheat, but if the pace of exports picks up in the next eight to 10 weeks, wheat markets could get interesting if the coming crop is indeed in trouble.

Leffler insists it is much too early to be slicing yields.

“Winter wheat crops are not made or lost this early in the season. Winter wheat is very much like cats — it has many, many lives. About the time you think that you’re walking away from a lost crop it can fool you,” he said.

Forecasters are calling for the next month to be warmer and drier than normal, which won’t help matters but Leffler said spring precipitation is what will make or break the crop.

“This crop could be a lot better than anybody dreamed of if the right weather conditions happen,” he said.

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