U.S. Wheat Farmers Not Counting Bushels Yet; Eyes on Weather

May 7, 2008

For farmer Dennis Shields, the fate of his new wheat crop is largely out of his control. In this first week of May – some 45-60 days from harvest – whether or not Shields makes a tidy profit or suffers a painful loss this summer is all up to the weather.

“It all depends on June,” said the 67-year-old Shields, who has been farming near Lindsborg, Kansas, more than 40 years.

If hot and dry weather settles into the U.S. Heartland as the newly emerging hard red winter wheat crop moves into the crucial grain filling period of development, kernels will likely shrivel and yield potential could shrink. But if mild conditions continue, the new crop could be a bin buster.

The crop is maturing later than normal this year with a more shallow root system due to late planting and a cooler-than-normal, wet spring, factors that have left the wheat crop more vulnerable than typical to the whims of weather.
“You get some 100-degree days … you’ll lose bushels and test weight will probably go down,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas State University grain quality specialist.

Efforts to determine the production potential for the new U.S. winter wheat crop, in particular the crop in top U.S. producer Kansas, is a near-obsession this season with an assortment of food industry players, from farmers to bakers, and export merchandisers to Mexican millers. Record wheat prices and short stocks around the world have generated high interest in this year’s wheat crop.

A group of more than 60 such industry representatives were taking part this week in a survey of hundreds of Kansas wheat fields as part of a Wheat Quality Council crop tour.

The tour will culminate on Thursday when participants come up with an estimated average yield and production tally for this year’s Kansas winter wheat crop.

A year ago at this time, the crop was looking very healthy, aside from some pockets of freeze-damaged fields. But high hopes were dashed when late-season heavy rains washed out many fields. So this year, even though the crop appears mostly healthy, with the potential for good production, few are willing to start counting on the bushels yet.

“We are a long way from getting this crop into the bin,” said ADM wheat quality specialist Dave Green.

The U.S. government will issue its first winter wheat production estimate on Friday.

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