McMillan: U.S. wheat harvest behind the curve

The U.S. wheat harvest continues to roll off the field, albeit at a slower than normal pace.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) on Monday reported that nationally, the country’s winter wheat harvest is 57 per cent complete, compared to the 2008-to-2012 average of 64 per cent. Crop growth and development have been slowed by earlier colder-than-normal temperatures.

Harvest delays range from five to 20 points behind normal in the west and 20 to 40 points in the east. Throughout the growing season, the hard red winter wheat (HRW) crop in the west has faced various challenges ranging from poor establishment, frosts and freezing rains, drought conditions and scorching heat.

Crop conditions for the eastern soft red winter (SRW) wheat crop have been much more favourable. There has been no significant drought or dryness, rainfall has been regular but not excessive, and temperatures have been near normal since March.

NASS’s weekly ranking of crop conditions reflected the earlier weather conditions. Western wheat crops were reported as 10 to 25 per cent good/excellent, and in the east good/excellent rankings were 65 to 75 per cent.

Although the damage in the west is undeniable, even there wheat yields have been highly variable. In the top U.S. wheat-producing state of Kansas, 2013 is described as either the worst in 40 years or one of the top three best years, all depending on location.

The Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers harvest report for Monday mostly covered harvest results from the northwestern crop district which has suffered prolonged and extreme drought. Growers there described yields of six to 20 bushels per acre, even after 35 per cent of the acres worst hit by drought were abandoned. Average yield estimates for this year ranged from 15 to 25 bushels per acre. The five-year average yield was 46 bushels per acre in the northwestern district.

The July 3 report described average yields around 60 bushels per acre, with high yields in the 90s in the north-central district. In contrast to western Kansas, as the wheat crop entered the heading phase, the severity of the drought lessened allowing yield compensation.

Most of the HRW crop south of central Kansas is now harvested, and recent weather will allow more northerly farmers to continue harvesting under favourable conditions.

“Issues may arise”

Harvest weather conditions in the east haven’t been nearly so favourable. Following ideal growing conditions, as the wheat was ready for harvest, rains moved in. Over the past week eastern SRW states received 15 to 150 mm of rain. There were only brief breaks in the rain, which did not provide sufficient time for harvest.

“If there are significant delays harvesting due to rain in the coming weeks, issues with rot and sprouting may arise,” USDA said.

Much of the SRW crop is milled regionally and used in cookies and crackers. Over the past two years of tight corn supplies, significant amounts of SRW have entered regional feed markets.

Quality downgrades may ensure SRW continues to enter the feed market, rather than milling. Total SRW production is unlikely to be reduced by poor weather unless significant rains result in flooding and lodging. The current two-week forecasts are for above-normal precipitation in the east and near normal to below normal in the west.

— Stuart McMillan writes from Winnipeg on weather and agronomic issues affecting Prairie farmers.

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